USA, November 2006 – The road map today is mostly virtual — an electronic image on a screen, at home or in the car, provided by Mapquest or a built-in satellite navigation system. Perhaps it is the contrast with digital maps that makes old-fashioned paper road maps seem rich and wonderful again. Those colorful guides once found in every glove compartment are gaining desirability not just as collectibles but as cultural records — even in archives as august as those of the Library of Congress.
C. Ford Peatross, curator of architecture, design and engineering collections in the library’s prints and photographs division, recently joined John Margolies, an expert on modern road maps, for a presentation in New York of Mr. Margolies’s artifacts of the road.
Mr. Margolies acquired the items in three decades of auto safaris across America, while searching out diners, gas stations, roadside attractions, main streets and miniature golf courses to document in photographs. With occasional support from book publishers, the Guggenheim Foundation and a patron, the late architect Philip Johnson, Mr. Margolies went on to single-handedly create a record similar to that accumulated by the New Deal photographers of the 1930s. Mr. Peatross said that the library was negotiating to acquire Mr. Margolies’s collection, including about 200 to 300 of his maps.
Mr. Margolies’s maps, along with matchbooks, menus and other ephemera make up only part of a collection recording life on the road in America in the (mostly) 20th century. Mr. Margolies especially treasures the maps of obscure, lost oil brands like Tydol, Parco or Dixie Gas — “The power to pass, that’s Dixie Gas.”
The old road maps don’t give oral directions or find the nearest A.T.M. But their resolution, design and colors all make the digital variety pale.
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 — that delineated the Red Ball Route, the Kit Carson Trail, the Bee Line or the Dixie Highway.
National standards for numbering roads arrived in 1925, and maps of the ’20s and ’30s 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 ’20s, maps also often showed airplanes, boats and other exciting vehicles that used the fuel and oil produced by the company issuing the map. Life on the road in such images is carefree and playful. Service stations are depicted welcoming children and dogs. Many of the dogs seem to be Scottish terriers, like the ones popular in films of the day. A motoring couple could feel like Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” movies.
Later, war maps remind motorists to slow down to save tires — the wartime speed limit was 35 miles an hour. By the baby booming ’50s, the images tended to show nuclear families, a mom, a dad, a son and a daughter; the ’60s maps show the dotted lines of planned Interstates and aerial views of highway cloverleafs.
Hard is as it is to imagine today, but shown in map images, the 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 if the images on the maps are to be trusted, joked with children and played with pets before handing the driver a free map and sending the motorists on their happy way.
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. Suddenly, you were lucky even to get gasoline. According to James R. Akerman, a cartographic historian at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Esso handed out some 34.5 million maps in 1965. By 1979, it was fewer than 8 million.
The gas station is no longer a service station but a self-service station; the two remaining states requiring an attendant to vend gasoline are Oregon and New Jersey. There are still free maps; states give away tourist maps and auto club members get maps with their membership. The new digital equipment for mapping provides technical challenges, especially for those old enough to remember paper grasped in fleshy digits. But in at least one respect, the new stuff is easier to use: few motorists ever mastered the secret of correctly refolding a road map.