skip to Main Content

Today’s GPS navigation and various digital mapping software have rendered even modern physical maps nearly obsolete. Even beautifully drawn and intricate maps are considered little more than artistic decoration for a blank wall.

Vintage service station road maps are no different, if not even more antiquated. Surprisingly, this quality has kept vintage road maps desirable and unique. Unlike modern map books that disappear into desuetude, antique road maps evolve into a physical representation of culture, nostalgia and simpler times past, essentially becoming much-coveted memorabilia.

Old Road Maps

People have used maps since antiquity. Naturally, ancient mapmakers centered their design on reaching destinations on foot or by a beast of burden. With the rise of horse-drawn vehicles, new maps had to be commissioned as foot paths became proper roads. In the dawn of the 16th century, European geodesist and cartographer, Erhard Etzlaub would design one of the earliest printed road maps. People dubbed it, the “Rom-Weg”(the Way to Rome) Map. Etzlaub’s map indicated that many roads and paths that pilgrims can take on their way to the Holy Roman Empire. In the centuries to follow, road maps would include more major roads, postal routes, residential streets, points of interest, and political boundaries.

With the arrival of the self-propelling vehicle, the automobile, new maps had to be created, and the streets had to be marked. In 1904, Rand Mcnally, an American tech and publishing company produced the first road map designed for travel by car. Mcnally would be the first of the Big Three map and atlas makers of the 20th century, followed by Gousha and General Drafting. These three map giants would go on to hand out the bulk of approximately eight billion road maps at US filling stations. Like the much-coveted vintage oil can, road maps were meant to be disposable, something a station attendant would hand out as he gave you directions and set you on your merry way. Filling stations would continue giving out road maps until the late ‘70s, when the energy and oil crisis, high prices, and increased competition among stations essentially put a stop to the free service station map.

Petroliana enthusiasts have different reasons for collecting old maps. Some enjoy building a collection of maps from rare regional service stations, while others aim to complete a series of station road maps for the entire country. Another reason is for the cultural record and as a document of palpable local history. The last reason is of note. One of the most fascinating aspects of old road maps is the way they reflect the historical events and atmosphere of the era they were created in.

A Reflection of Society

Today’s digital maps would help you find the nearest ATM, Starbucks, or gym at a touch. Naturally, old road maps won’t show you any of these modern amenities nor will it show you how many saloons are near your area. What road maps, do or have done, however, is something far more amazing. They reflect the changes of society and culture as perceived by motorists and weary travelers. Road maps offer snapshots, not of people or landmarks, but of time. It’s a still picture of a moment in time, an era similar to, but infinitely different from ours.

Take, for example, road maps from the 1930’s – a time many consider to be the road map’s golden age. Maps from this period would illustrate a carefree, high-spirited, and wholly playful life on the road. Colors are loud and bold and striking. Artists depict service stations as tiny oases where all are welcome. Maps from this period reflected society’s giddiness in innovation and the positivity of cultural Americana.

When the first bloody World War plunged the world into darkness, road maps then reflected the somber and anxious outlook of the time. Map illustrations would depict the flag, solidarity with the troop, as well as travelers and families with expressions that indicated restraint and austerity. Resource conservation was recommended. Motorists were encouraged to slow down to minimize tire wear, to donate, and support the war effort. Map colors were muted or painted in monotone.

By the baby booming 50’s, service station maps would enter their silver age. Illustrations and scenes were once again vibrant, appealing, and dynamic. Fast cars were depicted with drivers wearing perpetual smiles. The focus now was on the family unit as well as unity as a nation.

Free maps, of course, are long gone, like many other aspects of highway and automobile culture. However, many of those maps are still with us, now priceless. They are either in the collections of a proud collector, for sale on sites like these, or in a dank and dusty cabinet waiting to be found. In any case, there might still be hope of finally unlocking the secrets of refolding a map correctly.

The Types of Road Maps You’ll Encounter

Petroliana and automobilia Collectors do not limit themselves to service station maps that highlight a specific brand’s service and product. You may also come across city street map directories, tourism maps, and maps produced by the American Automobile Association (AAA).

City street map directories where ubiquitous in the 20’s. These maps detailed every known street in medium-sized cities and were invaluable for business during the time. Meanwhile, tourism maps are mostly from the late 20th century. These maps were official highway maps that featured local tourist destinations and local political events. Lastly, the maps produced by the AAA are, undoubtedly, the most common of the bunch. The AAA gave out these maps to their members. These maps featured different regions of the United States as well as the busiest and most commercial cities at that time. The AAA produced maps that spanned the 40’s and increased in number after the 70’s.

Vintage road maps offer us a nostalgic snapshot of our country and culture past. Many of these maps feature bold illustrations and picturesque views of less busy times when it was just a driver, his car, and the open road. Maps are also pictures of a time when the world didn’t have expressways and interstates, with many indicating destinations and tourist spots that have gone the way of the ol’ filling station.

Back To Top