As digital mapping systems and GPS devices have become standard, the road map’s reign has hit a dead end. Yet these pieces of paper ephemera are only increasing in desirability, as much for nostalgic and aesthetic reasons as their usefulness.

Most consider road maps a byproduct of the automobile, but the earliest road maps depicted European routes for horse-drawn vehicles. The first known road map was created by Ehrhard Etzlaub around 1495 showing various paths leading to Rome. Beginning in the 17th century, European postal routes and other major roads started appearing on maps, though most publications omitted streets until the printing of Ogilby’s Brittania in 1675. Around the same time, playing card maps, which were printed on a pocket-sized deck of cards, began depicting the roads of smaller regions in more detail.

It wasn’t until after the great westward expansion in the United States that road maps came into their own. The first maps designed for traveling by car appeared at the very end of the 19th century. These maps were generally included in larger guidebooks featuring information on sightseeing and regional destinations.

Mapmaking giant Rand McNally, established in 1868, initially focused on railroad routes and timetables, but in 1904, the company published its first automobile map covering the New York City region. Other major mapmakers like General Drafting and H.M. Gousha published a variety of atlases and individual maps for states and cities across the U.S.

These three map companies grew to dominate the industry, each designing its own series of distinct maps along with smaller folding road maps tailored for oil companies and other businesses. By the early 1910s, road maps were being given away for free as advertising, and often included notable sights or historic facts to make them more appealing to travelers.

In 1918, Wisconsin’s state legislature debuted the numbered highway system as we know it today, which was eventually adopted throughout the United States 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.

The depressed economy of the 1930s spurred a flood of flashy road map giveaways as companies attempted to stand out in the quickly expanding automobile industry. Oil producers like Socony-Vacuum (later known as Mobil), Esso, Standard, Chevron, Gulf, Shell, and Texaco all joined in the mapmaking game. In addition to oil-company handouts, road maps were provided free of charge by tourist agencies, banks, and auto clubs. During World War II, the production of free maps dropped significantly, and even state-issued maps were put on hold as resources were conserved for the war effort...

Beginning in the baby-boom years of the 1950s, road map production soared again, and advertising maps were given out by everyone from hotels to car dealerships. American dependency on the car led the U.S. federal government to develop the Interstate Highway System, which was officially authorized in 1956. However, the gas crisis of the 1970s forced many oil companies to stop distributing maps for free, and the production of paper road maps began its inevitable decline.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Petrol Maps

Petrol Maps

Ian Byrne's virtual glove compartment is crammed with almost 2,000 European petrol (gas) and oil company roadmaps. … [read review or visit site]

Ephemera Blog

Ephemera Blog

Marty Weil's wide-ranging, in-depth blog on ephemera, including lots of great interviews with ephemera collectors. … [read review or visit site]

Primarily Petroliana

Primarily Petroliana

Jim Potts’ site for petroliana collectors, featuring image galleries and community features such as a discussion … [read review or visit site]

Petroliana.co.uk

Petroliana.co.uk

Alan Chandler’s impressive collection of early British and European petroliana, including galleries with beautifu… [read review or visit site]

Ephemera Society of America

Ephemera Society of America

Great reference on ephemera... includes examples and descriptions of various ephemera categories, selected special … [read review or visit site]

Petromobilia Switzerland

Petromobilia Switzerland

Alex Wyler’s site is mostly in German, but the collection and images speak for themselves. You’ll find old gas … [read review or visit site]

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Ralph and Carol Falvo's excellent collection of automobiles, petroliana, jukeboxes, soda, and general store items. … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Lularoe New!! Tc Road Map Streets Leggings *htf*iso*! *unicorns* Cute!Nwot Os Road Map Leggings Lularoe1892 Louisville Nashville Rail Road Time Table & Huge Route MapLularoe Leggings Nwt Tall And Curvy Road MapLot Of 32 Vintage Road Maps 1940's To 1960's States & Cities Gasoline Oil GasLularoe New Tc Road Map LeggingManhattan Gasoline 1928 Edition Missouri/kansas Better Roads Promo MapMiniature Pattisons Cyclists Pocket Road Map London Counties Whiskey WhiskyLularoe Os One Size Road Leggings Rare Tracks Map Neighborhood NwtLularoe Os One Size Leggings Road Map New!Miche Demi Shell Gina With Chain Rope Handle World MapOld Vintage 1920's Automobile Auto Car California Tours Road Map Brochure Miniature Pattisons Cyclists Pocket Road Map Shropshire Cheshire Stafford Derby1908 State Map Of Michigan (road And Railroad Map) Issued By Page Dairy Co.Vintage Sunoco Road Map Sign And RackBlue Gray Gas Stations Tan-kar Oil Company Alabama Map 1948 Very Good ConditionLot Of 7 Vintage 1900's Road Maps (r9)Old 1920's Auto Car California Road Map San Francisco Los Angeles San Diego CaLot Of 12 Vintage Mobilgas & Mobil Oil Gas Service Station Road MapsPattisons Cyclists Road Map Whiskey Whisky Hereford Worcester Gloucester Oxford1941 Auto-owners Michigan Road Map1966 Leonard Michigan Road Map Clason's Green Guide Arizona W/ Road And Railway Maps Sc Book & Fold Out Map1950s ? Conneaut Lake Park Amusement Park Park & Road Map Paper FlyerVintage Road Map Of Minnesota 1940'sLot 17 Vintage Gas Oil Station Road Maps Sunoco Phillips 66 Standard Sinclair1892 Louisville Nashville Rail Road Time Table & Huge Route MapRailroad Nickel Plate Road Employee Timetable, Public, And Map1973 Tresler Comet Indiana Road Map1928 Wyoming Road Map Brochure Wyoming State Automobile Assn Ideal Tourist CampLulaore Road Map Leggings Os1925? Around Lake Michigan Trail Road Map Sunray Oil Gas Gafill OilGulf Oil Advertisement Of City Of St Louis Travel Guide Map 1950's Or Early 60'sCity Map By Texaco Oil Tin 1967's Expo 67 Montreal Clean 1949 Skelly Nebraska Road Map1948 Phillips 66 Nebraska Road Map1938 Standard Oil Company Nebraska Road MapVintage 1920's Street Guide Road Map San Diego City & County Southern Trust BankLot Of 153 Vintage State Road Maps Travel Ephemera - U.s Inc Gas Oil11 Vintage Arizona Road Maps & Brochures-phoenix-tucson-grand Canyon-old TucsonVintage 1925c National Automobile Club Strip Map Set Los Angeles Nevada Reno SfVintage 1925c National Automobile Club Strip Map Set Slc Yellowstone Grand TetonVintage 1963 Texaco City Of Calgary Map1935 And 1937 Allegheny County Pennsylvania (around Pittsburgh) Road Maps(5) Lot Of Vintage U.s. Road Maps - East And West, Pittsburg, Illinois, IowaSkelly Oil Co. 1948 Road Map Of NebraskaRand Mcnally Nebraska Kansas Dodge City Official State Highway Road Map Lot Of 5Sinclair Hc Gasoline Texas Oklahoma New Mexico & Mexico Road Map 1950Vintage1933 Pennsylvania Standard Oil Road Map Essolube1938 Conoco Nebraska Road Map1954 Phillips 66 Nebraska Road Map1948 West Virginia State Road Map1965 Texaco Nebraska Road Map1967 Texaco Nebraska Road MapLot Of 66 Gas Station U.s. Road Maps Gas Oil Advertising 1950's - 1980's?Lot Of 9 Vintage Gas Station Road Maps Mobil Sinclair Shell Dx Chevron Phillips26 Standard And 2 Utoco Oil Vintage Gas Station Road Map Lot~28 MapsRoad Map 1939 Mobilgas / ChicagoRoad Map 1939 Mobilgas / ColoradoRoad Map 1939 Mobilgas / Nebraska