Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Romancing the Road

QUESTION: My mother saved every map she and my dad collected on their many road trips. Some of these go back as far as just after World War II.  Do these have any value today?

ANSWER: Road maps, especially the ones produced by oil companies 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.

The systematic mapping of roads and the installation of route signs by the government 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 World War II, service stations gave out road maps free. These featured elaborate artwork. Oil producers such as Esso, Chevron, Shell, Gulf, Standard, Texaco, and Socony-Vacuum (later known as Mobil) all distributed maps.

Raod 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 were made to be disposable, 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 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. 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. These became a vehicle through which oil companies could promote the service at their stations, for it was service that differentiated them.

General Drafting produced maps for Esso, whose attendants handed out some 34.5 million maps in 1965.
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.

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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