This weekend I bought some 19th Century first edition Audubon prints at a local estate sale. They were a steal, and even after many years remain gorgeous pieces of naturalist art, as well as valuable collectibles. (There was also a Charles Bree Bald Eagle, which I’m quite excited about.)
The family running the estate sale also noticed that I was interested in some old maps from the fifties, and told me that if I took them all I could have them for free. In them were some New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey Postal Route Maps, circa 1955. They’re excellent, and I hope to mount them under plexiglass in my office soon. They’re romantic and remind me of the days when one could put gas in the car using the spare change in the ashtray. Unfortunately today I couldn’t buy a gallon of gas for an hour’s wage.
So it was a strange coincidence to see this article come out on Sunday. Anyway, I like maps. I love GPS technology, I’m addicted to the one in my car. And I MapPoint everything under the sun. Google Earth is my home away from home. But I could sit for hours pouring over an amazing atlas of anywhere in the world.
I think maps are amazing and like city plans, they show the histories of societies. A map of Boston shows old cart paths turned into confusing streets where continuous left turns will never get you to the same spot twice. I now live a few hundred yards from New York’s Old Albany Post Road where you can still see mile markers from Benjamin Franklin’s postal service.
Anyway, here’s a nice story about maps.
HEADLINE: When Maps Reflected Romance of the Road
BYLINE: By PHIL PATTON
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. Setting out on a long journey, I half expect to see the marker pins of a Google map rearing above the highway like giant hat pins, shadowing the pavement ahead.
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’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 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. Friends and fans of Mr. Margolies’s work are now raising funds to help in the effort. Professionals estimate the archive of maps, photographs and other materials at $5 million, Mr. Margolies said.
An exhibit of Mr. Margolies’s photographs has also been touring the world under the auspices of Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, exposing audiences from Bosnia to Paris to a seductive vision of America that may be one of our best efforts at global brand burnishing.
Today, like many collectors, Mr. Margolies acquires most of his maps on eBay. They belong to the growing category of collectibles called ”petroliana” — anything to do with gas stations and the petroleum industry, from pumps to porcelain signs — that are hot among collectors. These artifacts may be to the Oil Age what hand axes were to the Stone Age. Thanks to garage sales and eBay, it is easy to become a map collector. Prices are low, the variety vast. During the heyday of free road maps, by one estimate, some eight billion were distributed. They were made to be disposable, marked up by the attendant as he gave you directions and sent you on your way to happy motoring. But maps were often saved as souvenirs of the trips they guided.
The maps Mr. Margolies collects have previously been found mostly in his books, notably ”Hitting the Road: The Art of the American Road Map” (Chronicle Books, 1996), on which he collaborated with a fellow map collector, Douglas A. Yorke Jr., and a designer, Eric Baker.
Though many of the buildings Mr. Margolies photographed are gone, the maps preserve the spirit of journeys. Mr. Margolies’s presentations to groups are punctuated by such phrases as ”a great gas station, torn down now,” or ”last time I was in Topeka it had vanished,” but the vision of the automotive landscape and lifestyle lives on in maps.
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 screens in our cars seem like remnants of the days of the first I.B.M. PCs.
Mr. Margolies recalled a day on the road in Tennessee, going from Knoxville to Chattanooga, when he came upon a cache of old maps. ”Great ones for Standard Oil of Kentucky, the whole bunch for $12.50,” he remembered in a recent phone interview.
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 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. By the ’30s, which Mr. Margolies considers the golden era of the map, graphic sophistication had increased.
Among the most sought-after items are the large five-panel maps of the ’30s issued by Sinclair. Sinclair hired artists like Peter Helck, a well-known painter also noted for his advertising illustrations for car companies.
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.
The maps themselves tended to be fairly standard, created by Rand McNally, H. M. Gousha and the less well-known General Drafting, which early on secured the Esso contract. The maps were surrounded with bold images of travel that were, in effect, advertising for service stations. Gas was gas, but service differentiated the chains.
The historians John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle call this practice ”place product packaging” in their history ”The Gas Station in America” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). 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 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 formapping 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.