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Unfolding The Nation

July 2024
8min read

Wherever you go in search of history, there’s a good chance the first thing you reach for will be a road map. And road maps have a history too.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1895 the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a fifty-four-mile road race from Jackson Park to Waukegan and on to Lincoln Park. The prize was five thousand dollars. The eventual winner, a man by the name of Frank Duryea, had at least two advantages over his competitors. First, unlike some of them, he was driving a car propelled by gasoline. Second, Duryea had noticed that the paper had published a rough plotting of the course, and he’d had the good sense to rip it out and use it. He thus made not only money but history. By virtue of his action the Times-Herald illustration transcended newspaper graphics to become the first American automobile road map.

The distinction is significant only in retrospect; at the time its effects were nil. After all, what need was there for road maps when, even in 1900, there were a mere eight thousand registered automobiles in the entire country? But as the century shifted into gear, things changed. By 1910 almost a million cars had been registered; by 1915 more than two million. With this new popularity came innovations in the superstructure of motoring, innovations that, considering their improvised character, proved to be surprisingly durable. In 1908 came the first concrete road, a mile-long stretch of Detroit’s Woodward Avenue. Almost immediately motorists from hundreds of miles around made pilgrimages to drive on it. This was a year after the first pedestrian safety island, in San Francisco, and three years before the first painted dividing line, in Michigan. In 1914 Cleveland introduced the first electric traffic signal, and Buffalo put up the first no-left-turn sign in 1916.

Previously motoring had been a form of on-the-edge recreation, something like hang gliding today. Now it was transportation, and motorists needed guidance on how to get where they wanted to go. The roads in a good many urban areas were already mapped, thanks to the bicycle craze of the 1880s and 1890s. But bicycle maps were next to useless to motorists. Cyclists could negotiate mountain trails, pedal their way through alleys or, in an emergency, carry their vehicles across streams; motorists could not. Something new was needed.

As it happened, that something did not—at least at first—turn out to be the road map. Starting not long after the turn of the century, various concerns—tire companies, automobile associations, newspapers, car manufacturers, and resorts—began issuing road guides, in bound, folded, or pamphlet form, each spelling out one or more specific routes. For every turn along the way there was a precise mileage reading, which the motorist was to find on his odometer. In a book put out in 1898 by the White Company, for example, Route 56 is a 110-mile journey from South Bend to Chicago; the driver is told to get ready at mile 80.3, and “at the next corner turn left passing ‘Mike’s Place’ on the right.” Publishing the guide was hardly a civic-minded gesture on the part of White, a manufacturer of steam cars. Not only is the book filled with advertisements, but almost every route in it ends at a branch of the firm.

Something new was needed. That something did not—at least at first—turn out to be the road map.

These early road guides generally included a map or two, but they were not to be relied on. As the Hartford Rubber Works, a tire concern, admitted in its Automobile Good Roads and Tours, published in 1905, “A very thorough preliminary search showed that there were no maps which could be used as a basis for this work…. Much has been willingly left to geographical sense, and the tourist’s own constructive faculty.”

There was considerable variation in the books. In one or another you could find promotional claims (“That the White raises less dust than any other car was proven beyond question in the ‘Dust competition’ held last year by the Royal Automobile Club of England on the Brooklands race-track”); useful advice (“Look out for auto-trap [speed trap], especially in the thinly settled part of town”); and even navigational tips that suggest the precarious nature of motoring early in the century. One book gives detailed instructions, complete with a sketch of the Big Dipper, on how to find “true north.”

A major innovation in the guidebooks was the use of photographs of key points along the route; some included a picture of every turn. (Early examples show a car making the maneuver in question, while later ones, their authors’ having learned an important lesson, showed the turn from the perspective of the driver.) An obvious problem for the compilers of photo guides was that if the enterprise wasn’t to take an intolerable amount of time, at least two researchers were needed: one to drive, and one to take odometer readings, pictures, and notes. Andrew McNally II, son of the founding partner of Rand McNally & Company, solved this problem by enlisting his bride; the Rand McNally Chicago to Milwaukee Photo-Auto Guide of 1909 is a record of their honeymoon trip.

Another difficulty with the guidebooks was that landmarks on the order of Mike’s Place were not permanent. So, in the 1910s, a number of guidebook makers took the sensible step of making their own landmarks. In the middle of the decade, the Goodrich tire company began putting up guideposts, described as follows in one of their books: “Erected for the express purpose of guiding motor travel. This sign is made of porcelain enamel in three colors, erected on 4-inch oak posts, ten feet long. Each post is thoroughly creosoted and planted three feet into the ground.” The company’s guidebooks then supplied directions keyed to the markers.

Roads had no names or had at best local, unofficial ones that changed as you went from one town to another.

The guides were useful, but they could not hold sway for very long. As new roads were built, the books, which had gotten more unwieldy every year, simply could not cover all the possible routes. It was time for the road map.

Maps designed exclusively for autos had been produced at least as early as 1900, the date of a series of pocket maps put out by George Walker of Boston, which can be found in the map collection of the New York Public Library. His maps are in perfect condition, printed in delicate colors and handsome typography, beautifully bound and backed with stiff gauze covers, and—miraculously, considering the legendary difficulties later generations of drivers have had with the task—effortless to fold.

There was no shortage of other maps produced in the following years, many of them published by the American Automobile Association, founded in 1902. (In the early teens the AAA began putting out what later became known as Trip-Tiks, elongated, horizontal strip maps customized to guide members on their travels. It provides the same service today.) But there was one drawback in using maps for directional guidance at this time: roads had no names or at best had local, unofficial ones (Lincoln Highway, Dixie Highway, Post Road) that changed as you went from one town to another. How were these roads to be identified on maps?

A solution to this problem was hit on by John Brink, a draftsman on the staff of Rand McNally. In 1916 the company ran a contest, offering a hundred dollars to the employee who suggested the best new map product. Brink suggested road maps specifically designed for motorists. To deal with the route-naming difficulty, he proposed that Rand McNally take the Goodrich trail markers one step better and put up posts that numbered major routes, which would then be correlated with the maps. Brink, named head of Rand McNally’s new Blazed Trails Department, put his scheme into practice in 1917, when his Illinois Auto Trails map was published. The next year Brink used his summer vacation to blaze the route from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Cincinnati.

In his diary he recorded his method: “I started out for the field with my car loaded with 400 cardboard signs (coated to resist the weather), ten pounds of broadhead tacks, and a magnetic hammer, not to mention a pair of overalls. Commencing at Kalamazoo, I worked south, and in nine working days, reached Richmond, Ind. l had blazed 180 miles of road, tacking up 355 signs that consumed 22 pounds of tack.”

Brink’s idea might have been too good. It so clearly made sense that now dozens of civic organizations, auto clubs, state road departments, and map companies began blazing trails, with the confusing result that some roads were marked by as many as a dozen contradictory signposts. Clearly, government intervention was called for. It started to arrive in 1920, when Wisconsin became the first state to number its roads; by 1924 twenty-one other states had followed its lead. By the end of the decade, 75,884 miles of “U.S. Routes” were in place, the precursor to the Interstate Highway System of the 1950s.


A map innovator perhaps the equal of John Brink was an advertising man named William B. Akin. In 1913 the Gulf Refining Company erected, on a Pittsburgh street corner, the nation’s very first drive-in gasoline service station. In the fall of 1913, Akin suggested that Gulf print up some maps of the county’s roads and give them away to customers as promotional tools.

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.”


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