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Motor Trails Are Calling

June 2024
1min read

The Art of the American Road Map

by Douglas A. Yorke, Jr., John Margolies, and Eric Baker , Chronicle Books, 132 pages, $18.95 . CODE: CRN-8

JUST OVER A CENTURY AGO THE Chicago Times-Herald ran an illustration showing the route of a local automotive race. It wasn’t pretty, but it counted as the first map done specifically for motorists and not for bicyclists or buggy drivers. The AAA Blue Book guides—which described routes rather than mapped them—arrived early in the century, and by 1912 oil companies were distributing the first of the eight billion maps they would give free to American travelers until the late seventies. Hitting the Road is a beautiful celebration of the high commercial art that flourished in these classy giveaways, whose aim was to keep Americans adventuring and burning gas. The map covers of the twenties show white-walled roadsters pulling powerfully up dirt “motor trails,” and they inaugurate a character now too sparkling for anyone under fifty to believe in: the helpful, clean-suited station attendant, dressed sometimes like a bellboy, at other times in white coveralls, a bow tie, and a patrolman’s cap. The attendants attack the vehicles in cheerful teams. “A clean wholesome atmosphere about the Independent station invites the woman driver,” says an Independent Oil map from 1930. Shell favored big, glamorous foldout scenes evoking the call of the road, as on the front of a handsome 1932 Missouri map that shows a flapper chauffeuring an F. Scott Fitzgerald look-alike.

The early maps distributed by Tydol Oil, Deep-Rock, and Polarine Oil and Greases worked harder to lure Americans into their cars than did those from the superhighway era, when nine-tenths of American families routinely vacationed on the road. And the later maps show the change in national habits: their bleakly abstract drawings have all the flair of road signs along the coast-to-coast freeway slab. With the coming of the highway system the age of backroads meandering—and its glove-compartment propaganda—passed.

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