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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Romancing the Road
by Bob Brooke


Today, many cars come equipped with GPS. And if the car doesn’t have it, smartphones do. As a result, a growing number of younger people cannot read road maps. So when their car or phone’s GPS doesn’t work, they’re lost.


But maps don’t die. They’re as reliable as the information shown on them. Ever since the invention of the automobile, road maps have helped people reach their destinations—no voice required.

While state governments prepared topographical survey maps in the 19th century and many included some roads, the systematic mapping of roads and the installation of route signs by them didn’t occur until the auto arrived. Prior to the mid-1890s, bicyclists were the ones who demanded road maps. But as the new century dawned, the number of automobiles on the roads began to increase. The Chicago Times-Herald printed the first automobile road map in the country for a race they sponsored from Chicago to Waukegan.

In 1918, Wisconsin’s state legislature initiated a numbered highway system, which the federal government adopted in 1926. The new highway system gave us the names for legendary roads like Route 66 or California’s scenic Highway 1. Rand McNally became the first major publisher to adopt the system, which it also helped promote by installing numbered signs along these national roadways.

Before the gas shortages of 1973, service stations gave out free road maps, featuring elaborate artwork. Oil producers such as Esso, Chevron, Shell, Gulf, Standard, Texaco, and Socony-Vacuum (later known as Mobil) all distributed maps.

Road maps belong to the growing category of collectibles called “petroliana,” or anything to do with gas stations and the petroleum industry. For the most part, they’re reasonably priced, and some estimate that during their peak, service stations distributed over 8 billion. Oil companies provided them as a service. They made them to be disposable and easily marked up by the gas station attendant as he gave directions and sent his customer on their way. But people often saved maps as souvenirs of the trips they made.

As automobiles proliferated, the marking of routes changed. Before numbered roads, stripes of paint on telephone poles, fence posts or trees delineated the various routes. In 1925, states began numbering their roads. At first it was an adventure to drive, but by the 1930s it had turned into a method of tourism. Tourist cabins sprang up along the way, as motorists made their way across country. Historians consider this time the road map’s golden age.

The service station foreshadowed future marketing. It stands as one of the first instances in which sellers of a commodity used names, logos, graphics, color, architecture and other aspects of design to create a branded variation on the standard item.

Hard as it is to imagine today, but shown in map illustrations, service station chains competed on the cleanliness of their restrooms and the helpfulness of their attendants, who not only washed windshields and checked oil, but supposedly joked with children and played with pets before handing the driver a free map and sending the motorists on their happy way.

The evolution of the maps reflects changes in life on the road. The early ones show the days before numbered roads. Routes were marked like hiking trails in blazes — Strips of paint on telephone poles, fence posts or trees, called blazes, delineated routes like the Red Ball Route, the Kit Carson Trail, the Bee Line, and the Dixie Highway.

National standards for numbering roads arrived in 1925, and maps of the 1920s and 1930s show adventure turning into tourism. Auto sales rose and gas stations sprang up, with maps to hand out, their covers showing beckoning horizons and gently rolling hills.

In the 1920s, maps often pictured airplanes, boats, and other vehicles that used the fuel and oil produced by the company issuing the map. By the 1930s, the golden era of the highway map, graphic sophistication had increased.

The Sinclair Oil Company hired noted artists like Peter Helck, who also produced advertising illustrations for car companies. Maps featured images of a carefree and playful life on the road, with service stations welcoming children and dogs, many of which were Scottish terriers, like the ones popular in movies like “The Thin Man.”

Maps produced during World War II reminded motorists to slow down to save tires—the wartime speed limit was 35 miles an hour. After the War, maps featured dynamic scenes, vibrant colors, and great graphics.

By the baby booming 1950s, the images tended to show nuclear families—a mom, dad, son and daughter, all enjoying life on the road. During the 1960s, maps displayed the dotted lines of planned Interstates and aerial views of highway cloverleafs.

Three companies—Rand McNally, H. M. Gousha, and General Drafting—produced most of the service station maps. Bold travel images, in effect, advertising for service stations surrounded the maps, themselves. These became a vehicle through which oil companies could promote the service at their stations, for it was service that differentiated them.

This practice, known as “place product packaging,” stands as one of the first instances in which sellers of a commodity used names, logos, graphics, color, and architecture to create a branded variation on the standard item. General Drafting produced maps for Esso, whose attendants handed out some 34.5 million maps in 1965. The 1960s maps showed the dotted lines of planned Interstates and aerial views of highway cloverleafs. After 1965, the quality of service station maps declined until their virtual disappearance in the 1980s.

Today, of course, free maps are long gone. They faded away, along with so many other aspects of the highway culture, with the 1973 energy crisis.

Road maps, especially the ones oil companies used to produce for their service stations, are highly collectible. While older ones can be worth higher amounts, depending on their condition, newer ones aren’t as pricey. They’re also easy to store, so a collection won’t take up a lot of room—always a good thing for those living in apartments.

Early road maps from the first decade of the 1900s can be worth $75-100 today in good condition. Those from the 1920s and 1930s range in price from $20-40. Groups of maps from the 1950s sell for $10-20.

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