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]

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]

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]

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    

Rare Maxfield Parrish C. 1925 B.f. Goodrich Tires Map Case & Automobile Atlas NrVintage Chevron Supreme Road Map Rack Display Service Gas Station AdvertisingVintage 1930's Montana Highway Map Grizzly Dubbs Cracked GasolineVtg 1935 San Diego Pacific Int Exposition Shell Oil Pictorial Map Bloodgood OrigWood River Oil Gas Iowa Road MapOld Vintage Barbie Ken Doll Htf Car Keys Road Map Rally Day #788 & Casuals #782Road Map Of India 1939 Linen Surveyor General Calcutta Scale 1/50 Miles InchesVintage Silver Gas Road Map Of Idaho Montana WyomingVintage 1914 Northern California Pacific Road Guide Maps By Strip Maps BookVintage Road Maps LotsLot Of 10 Vintage Gas Station U.s. State Road Maps Sinclair Mobil Standard Old Kidsline New Road Map Blue Plush Brahams Lullaby Musical Crib Mobile BhfoOberlin Samplers The Road North Civil War Map Cross Stitch Chart OopLot Of 9 Vintage Automobile Club Of Southern California Road MapsNew Puma Boy's Junior Road Map Stripe Golf Polo ! M Drycell Nwt $50Vintage Gas Station Road Maps Texaco Frontier Mobilgas Standard Skelly 1910's Pacific Highway Travel Brochure & Map Automobile Club Of Seattle Vintage Barbie Open Road Map MintLarge Lot Of Over 49 Us Road Maps. Lot Of 11 Vintage Gas Station U.s. State Road Maps Texaco Mobil Standard Shell 1961 Hawaii Map With Honolulu Road Map - Flying A - Tidewater Oil CompanyStandard Oil 1933 Road Map Of New Jersey Some Creases Vg Condition Vintage Hudson Of Delaware Eastern United States Road Map Old No Reserve Sweet!Vintage Shell Road Maps Glove Box Sleeve 1970's Hq Hj Hx Holden Ford Xy Xa Xb Vw1932 Shell Gasoline Illinois Auto Road Map - License Plates1940 Humble Oil - Texas Map - Houston Wichita Falls BeaumontChevron Rpm Map San Diego Ca Street Road City Hwy 101 1950's Fine Arts PalaceBerwick Store Company-berwick, Pa-1920s Era Pennsylvania Fold-out Road MapLot Of 5 Different Oil Company Road Maps 1930s-70s Gulf Shellcitgo AaaSinclair Oil Map New Jersey And Metropolitan New York Circa 1950s1936 Esso Road Map Of New Jersey Some Creases Vg Condition 6 1960's Lot Aaa Ca Maps Riverside San Gabriel Valley Los Angeles ++ Road Street1920's United States Highway Hwy Rt 66 101 +++ Us Ca Aaa Map Touring Bureau RoadAntique 1930s Gulf Road Maps Louisiana La1962 Montclair California Chamber Of Commerce Brochure & Road Map BMaine, Road Map Of Passamaquoddy Bay Region, Copyright 1964, Unused, Vgc, (214 Texaco Vintage 1975 Road Map-floridaBlack Geometric Vintage Oil Drop Map Collar Bib Statement Necklace Earrings Set1959 Colorful Colorado Centennial Folding Travel Road Map Department Of HighwaysVintage Sunoco New York Road Map Old No Reserve Sweet!1952 Esso Oil Road Map Of New Jersey Some Creases Vg Condition Lot Of 15 Vintage Road Maps 1950s & 1960s UsedVintage Collectible Gulf Road Map Old No Reserve Sweet!Pink Geometric Vintage Oil Drop Map Collar Bib Statement Necklace Earrings Set8 Los Angeles Ca Freway System Aaa Maps Vintage Street Road 1970-1980's1950's Aaa Southern California Lot 7 Maps Ventura Kern Imperial ++ County RoadPattison's Scotch Whisky Distillers Cyclists' Pocket Road Map, Hereford Area9 Vintage Gas Station Road Maps - 1950's1920's Aaa Strip Road Map #7 Popular Fishing Streams & Mtn Resorts Touring Board1920's Aaa Strip Road Map #8 Los Angeles To Sunland & La Canada Touring Board1958 Los Angeles California Pomona Valley Bank Road Map BVintage Sinclair Kansas Gas Road Map + Pictorial Sight Seeing Guide 1940'sHagstrom's Street And Road Map Of Lower Westchester County N.y. 19523 Aaa Ca Camping Map Guide Vintage Northern Central Southern Park Road Offroad1950's Lake Arrowhead Crestline Lake Gregory Big Bear Lake Aaa Map Vintage RoadVintage 1958 Texaco North Dakota~south Dakota Oil Gas Service Station Road MapVintage, Original 1938 Union 76 Road Map Of Washington, Oregon & The Western U.sCirca 1930's Map Of City & County Of San Francisco, California~ State Auto Assoc5 Usa Vintage Road Maps - 1940s-1960s:ny, Mo, Nb,in & Gulf Tour Of Tx,ark,la,ms1864 Fort Benton Military Road Map John Mullan Original Sn Ex. Doc No: 137