Unfolding The Nation

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The idea caught on. By 1920 Gulf was giving away sixteen million Eastern states maps a year, and before long, with every other gasoline company following its lead, free road maps were the way virtually every American motorist figured out how to get from one place to another. From the thirties on, these folded maps of cities, states, and regions changed very little in form, except for occasional experiments like a 1955 map Esso put out of the route from New York to Florida. It is a cartographic fact of life that some people And it hard to use a map to proceed south, when a line veering off to the right represents a left turn. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Esso put Florida on the top. The break with convention proved to be too great, and after ten years the experiment was abandoned.

By this time free road maps had come to seem an American institution, something of an inalienable right. In the fifties, a publication of the General Drafting Company, one of the companies that, along with Rand McNally. designed and sold the road maps to the oil companies, mused: “It seems to us that there is a close parallel between maps and television. Both are free to the public, both have mass appeal. Both depend on high quality to produce low-cost results for advertisers. Both call for human interest, novelty, attractiveness and good taste in their ‘commercials.’ There is one big plus for maps. They have retention value. Their ‘commercials’ live on for months, even years.”

Such pride would not go unpunished. In 1972, two hundred and fifty million free maps were produced for the oil companies, more than ever before. The very next autumn the Arab oil embargo struck, an event that proved to be the death knell for the free road map. Shortages and gas lines did away with the intense competition that had spawned promotional giveaways. By 1978 the free road map had gone the way of the Packard, Ebbets Field, and the fifteen-cent cup of coffee. Today maps are available at gas stations and bookstores, but they can cost up to three dollars.

Still, free road maps left their mark. For one thing, they taught several generations of Americans a skill that had once been the esoteric province of yachtsmen, surveyors, and generals. Indeed, officers who served in both world wars found that in the Second their men could read reconnaissance maps more proficiently than they could in the First. The reason was road maps.

By definition realistic, road maps have also touched a lyrical vein in the American sensibility, offering an image of the country that is almost poetic. Unfolding a state map and following a crooked line to a town called, say, Clarion, is a potent imaginative experience; it makes you ponder.

It is a cartographic fact of life that some people find it hard to use a map to proceed south.

To Jack Kerouac the open road was “one long red line called Route 6 that led from Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada. and then dipped down to Los Angeles.” A more recent writer, William Least Heat Moon, also sees the road map as a metaphor of sorts. In the preface to his book Blue Highways, he writes: “On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”