Gas Station Maps

In olden times, like back in the 1960s, you could pull into any gas station in the US and grab a free road map.  These maps were designed for one purpose – to show the motorist how to get from where he was to where he wanted to be.  The maps were part advertising and part incentive.  The idea was to encourage travel by automobile.  The more you traveled the more gas you burned.

The idea of the free road map was born back in the early 1900s when automobile companies like Ford were involved in a major push to get the state and federal governments to expand and improve roads throughout the country.  Road conditions were simply awful back then and the thought was that better roads would encourage travel and commerce and, of course, spur automobile sales.  This led to the creation of the federal Bureau of Public Roads (later the Federal Highway Administration) and the first allocations of federal money for ongoing road construction and maintenance.

By illustration, one of Harry Truman’s standard campaign platforms when he was serving as a commissioner in Missouri, then Senator and ultimately as President was better roads.  He felt that no farmer in a rural area should have to travel more than two miles to find a paved road to get his crops to market.  The fact that two miles was viewed as a reasonable distance to have to haul products before finding a good road is reflective of the state of road construction in the rural areas of the country right up into the 1950s.

Well, if we’ve got all these good new roads how do we let people know about them?  Why the road map, of course!  Gasoline companies like Texaco, Shell, BP, Mobile, Standard Oil and many others viewed free road maps as part of the cost of doing business.  The gasoline companies didn’t do the map production themselves.  They farmed out the production to one of the few companies that specialized in making road maps.  Rand McNally, Gousha and General Drafting were the major players in this industry and they cranked out millions of maps between 1920 and 1970.

The other great thing about gas station road maps, besides being free, was that they were kept fairly current.  The compilation of these maps was a cooperative effort between the gasoline producers, the mapping companies and local, state and federal road and transportation bureaus.  Maps were updated and re-published as frequently as every year depending on the rate of road construction in a particular state.  Of course each gas company’s map was tailored to show company service stations and to proudly trumpet the superiority of their product over their competitor’s, but the actual map information tended to pretty consistent from company to company.

A side benefit from this program was the standardization of road map symbology.  Map makers realized we needed a common map language to depict things like primary roads, secondary roads, city boundaries, rivers and lakes and route symbols.  In very short order common symbols were standardized and used on all road maps, not just those handed out for free in gas stations.  Map symbols were a unifying language on the highways and byways of mid-20th century America.

In addition, millions of American school kids learned map reading from gas station road maps.   Schools regularly integrated map reading into the curriculum, and the map of choice was the good old gas station road map.  I think the peak of America’s map literacy came in the 1950s, when millions of American kids, eager to tell their parents where to go, took over the job of automobile navigation and honed their skills in route finding and trip planning with good old gas station maps.

In the 1950s we planned our journeys using a paper map and imagination.  Today we fire up the GPS and wait for it to tell us where to go.  I fear we have become map dummies.

Let’s take a trip back in time and see what it was like for a mapping company to keep up with changes to roads and road conditions.  Many would be surprised to learn that the methods used today are pretty much the same as we see in this video.  The equipment has changed – it’s all computerized now – but someone still has to drive the roads and note the changes.

– Brian