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HITTING THE ROAD:
Road Maps From the Map Collection of Yale University Library

(Text from Hitting the Road: The Art of the American Road Map, By Douglas A. Yorke, Jr. and John Margolies. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.)


The Beginnings

In the early teens, the oil-company road map appeared for free in gas stations across America. Soon, as more and more Americans owned cars and began driving for pleasure, the oil-company road map became the primary medium through which Americans found their way on the ever growing network of the nation�s roads and highways. The oil-company road map is a tangible record of the development of a purely American fascination with the automobile. The maps were designed to advertise the products and services of a company, but also to encourage the motorist to travel and discover America. The cover artwork itself is often quite sophisticated and provides compelling insight into the history of American culture. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2

Maps in America at the turn of the century were primarily geopolitical. Mountains, rivers, major cities, and political boundaries were far more significant to cartographers than the parallel ruts in the dirt that connected village to village. The invention of the bicycle and the newfound personal mobility it provided created a need for better roads and better maps. The automobile soon followed, and the maps were overprinted with a contrasting color to indicate roads appropriate for the car. By 1910, the model T had created a significant demand for maps, and guides like the Mendenhall Guide and Road Map of Connecticut began to appear. This map shows main routes, good roads, common roads and railroads. It also includes a step by step description of travel between major cities. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1

Before the numbering of roads became standard in the twenties, routes such as the Boston Post Road, the Lackawnna Trail, and Baltimore Pike began to be marked on telephone poles along major routes. The Rand McNally Auto Trails map gives the trail markings as well as a general map of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. The Ideal Tour map charts the quintessential weekend tour of New England and the White Mountains, complete with hotel accommodations and dining recommendations. On the back of the map are photographs of recommended sights. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2

The first oil-company road map appeared in the early teens. Although many companies claim to be the first to issue promotional maps, Gulf was the most prolific producer in the early teens. By the twenties, most major oil companies had some form of promotional map program. The covers often featured a man and a woman discovering the joy of driving through the countryside, enjoying the freedom and mobility the automobile offered. Gulf�s map number 11 shows a touring car with the top down, shooting into the landscape beneath the orange sun--the Gulf logo. The 1927 Standard Oil map of Ohio compares the motorist to the pioneer in the conegestoga wagon, blazing trails and discovering new lands. The Kentucky Standard Oil map of the same year has a three panel spread, depicting a motorist using a free map to plan their descent into the rolling valley below. Oil companies were encouraging the automobile owner to travel and explore the country--using their gasoline. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3

The 1930s

The Art Deco movement influenced graphic and industrial design beginning in the mid twenties. Road map artists used the deco style to invoke the speed and energy of the automobile through radiating patterns of lines, colors blocks, and modernistic lettering. The Standard Oil Company often used this kinetic and dynamic artwork on the covers of their road maps. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3 4

The most spectacular of the Oil-Company maps were the Sinclair five paneled maps from the 1930�s. Sinclair hired Peter Helck, perhaps the most prominent automotive artist at the time, to create the greatest maps the public had seen. The result was a portfolio of lush service station scenes which monumentalized Sinclair and the idea of driving for pleasure. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2

Also in the thirties, women drivers acquired a substantial role in oil-companies� promotional map strategies. The Shell Pennsylvania map from 1932 shows a woman and her beau cruising under a collage of license plates. One year later, she was on the cover solo, taking advantage of the freedom and power that an automobile could give her. Oil companies often portrayed women being attended by eager attendants at a service station. The gas station was a clean, safe, and friendly haven for the woman behind the wheel. Oil comapnies also hoped that the woman copilot could have sway when determining which brand to purchase when out for a drive with her husband. After the thirties, women as solo drivers would viturally disappear from road map cover art. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3 4 5

The 1940s and After

Many oil companies offered special edition maps to highlight events. Almost all of the major oil companies issued maps in honor of the World�s Fair, Olympics, and even lesser known exhibitions. These events provided another opportunity for the oil company to provide an inexpensive service to the consumer. During the war years, some companies like Esso produced war maps. The map shows air miles, nautical routes, railroads, etc. printed over a simple map of the world. The back side and border of the map are sprinkled with drawings of Esso�s contributions to the war effort. Every special edition map attempted to capture a corner of the market with a tailor made strategy. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3 4

New Haven and Yale can be found in promotional maps. Socony published a Citigraph for the casual visitor to the Elm City. This tiny map�s brief visitor�s guide reinforces the connection between the motorist and the friendly and informative oil company. Yale and Harkness Tower also feature prominently on the 1946 map of New England. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2

The postwar period marks a change in the purpose, style, and content of oil-company road maps and road map art. First, the maps portray the glory of America�s natural beauty--a peaceful reminder of the country many young veterans called home. Instead of generic landscapes, maps often depicted natural wonders and tourist destinations to entice the traveler back onto the roads after wartime gasoline rationing. The most spectacular of these scenic maps were the Cheveron maps depicting the west and northwest part of the country. These maps captured a silent majesty that inspired patriotism, as well as the desire to travel. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1

Also after the war, the protagonists in map cover art began to change. Before the war, images a lone man or woman or perhaps a young couple behind the wheel of a roadster were common. After the war, oil companies targeted the American family as the primary users of their maps. Maps depict families on vacation, out for a picnic, or on a Sunday afternoon drive. Children of the baby boom were fascinated with maps, and the oil companies responded with cover art, thumbnail sketches of historical sights, and bold graphics in an effort to captivate the young consumer. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3

During the late forties and fifties, competition for the gasoline consumer began to increase and road map cover art began to reinforce the oil company logo and sign by depicting the company�s billboard atop mile-high lollipop signs. These mundane images are start of a trend toward more generic, simple, and unimaginative road map covers in the latter half of the century. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3

Throughout the history of the road map, cover art often features motorists using the oil-company road map as a guide to the wide open roads. This self-referential tactic creates a dependency in the consumer. The automobile pilot comes to depend on the oil-company not only for gas, but for direction and advice as well. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3

Beginning in 1956, Esso capitalized on the hordes of Florida vacationers by introducing the upside-down map. South was placed at the top of the map in an effort to make right and left turns easier. The reverse side is printed with a sight seeing guide for the family vacation. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1

Twilight Years

Montage maps presented vignettes which could apply to many areas of the oil companys� distribution region. Thus, the artwork could be used for several states, regions, or cities. The images, though generic, often portray Americans appreciating the natural beauty of the landscape engaged in active recreations such as hunting, fishing and of course, driving. Note the catchline on the 1966 Standard Oil Montage map of 1966, discover America best by car Oil companies are beginning to feel the impact of the airline industry. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2

By the late sixties and early seventies, the twilight of the oil-company road map, cover art had degenerated into stylized modifications of corporate logos or state outlines. Even the mundane cloverleaf interchange often found its way into a static color block pattern on several maps. Oil companies were losing interest in a promotional strategy that began to be less and less effective. The interstate highway system negated the need for an updated map each year. In addition, the interstate destroyed the motorists� fantasy with the American landscape by emphasizing the destination rather than the journey. As map prices quadrupled in ten years, most oil companies deemed promotional maps an unnecessary expense. Click the number to see enlarged maps 1 2 3


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Last updated August 10, 2000.