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 with almost 2,000 European petrol (gas) and oil company roadmaps. While Ameri… [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    

Vintage 1940's Mobil Mobilgas Gas Station Road Map Display 24" Metal Sign1941 Mccoll Frontenac Oil Company Ltd., The Red Indian Pathfinder Road MapJohn Ogilby- 17th Century Road Map London To Harwich Essex- Antique Strip C1698Continental Refining State Of Pennsylvania Highway Road Map 1940s Vintage TravelTexaco Antique Road Map - Lincoln HighwayNational Old Trails Road Map Book 1920's L1040- Vintage Gas Service Station Road Maps- Sunoco, Esso, Texaco, Etc.1934 Gulf Oil Road Map Of Massachusetts,connecticut,rhode IslandCities Service Road Map Of Ohio 1936Colorado State Highway Road Map From 1935Puma Men's Road Map Stripe Short Sleeve Golfing Polo Size Large (blue/red) NwtMontana State Highway Road Map From 1935Esso Pictorial Plan Eastern Counties Taylor Attractive Lithograph Map C1936Lot Of 10 Vintage 1930's Gulf Oil Gas Station Road Maps Tourgide Info Maps1935 Shell Road Map Of Maine & Maritime ProvincesSun Oil Company Road Map And Historical Guide Of Pennsylvania- Mid 1930sCirca 1920 Hawkeye Oil Gas Souvenir Iowa MapTexaco Road Map Of Wisconsin Mid-1930sUnion Oil Company Road Map Of Washington And Oregon- Mid 1930sWorld War 2 - 1941 Ontario, Canada Road Map - Army - Navy - Air Force RanksVintage Michigan Road Maps,collection,13Gulf Gasoline-automobile Roads In Southern New England-original 1929 MapCalso Road Map Of North Dakota 19381935 Standard Oil Road Map Of South DakotaTydol Road Map Of Pennsylvania And New Jersey From 1934 - Scarce!1932 Los Angeles Olympics Map By Union Oil Company Olympic GamesVintage 1934 New Jersey Map Sinclair Oil Co.1939 South Dakota Calso Gas Rpm Motor Oil Advertising Gousha MapGulf Gasoline-automobile Roads In Pennsylvania-original 1929 MapLot Of 12 Vtg. Gas And Oil Road MapsConoco Road Map Of Idaho Approx. 19371913 Scarborough's Road Map & Motor Guide Minnesota Color Maps RareVintage Esso Man "happy Motoring" Map Of America Skotch Kooler (vg Condition)South Dakotastate Highway Road Map From 1939Mopar Plymouth Dodge Road Runner Gtx Charger Nos Map Lite Assembly 71-72Vintage, Original 1935 Texaco Road Map Of California And NevadaMap Of Nevada Auto Trails And Commercial Survey Highways Roads Electric LinesLot Of 19 Asst. Us Road Maps.Vintage 1940 Tydol Trails Veedol Oil Iowa Road Map! Tide Water Gas StationsSb Vintage Road Map New England Usa Street Guide Fold Out 1940sVintage United States Road Map From Automobile Club Of Southern CaliforniaGulf Oil 1957 Road Map Of FloridaGulf Oil 1956 Road Map Of Illinois, IowaAuto Seat Side Water Bottle Phone Sunglass Maps Storage Bag Net Pocket OrganizerVintage Mobil Socony Mobil Oil Marine Map Boat Cruising Guide Sandy Hook To FlaVintage Mobil Socony Mobil Oil Marine Map Boat Cruising Guide Me. N.j. #1 Map1964 Texaco Michigan Road Map Detroit Grand Rapids Lansing Saginaw Flint2 Vintage Bartholomews Automobile Association Maps 1930sBacon's Motor Road Map. Scotland.two Maps In One(reversable)cloth.Massachusetts Ma Cape Cod Auto Map Postcard Old Vintage Card View Standard PostVintage Washington D.c. And Suburban Maryland Road Map92 Lot Vtg Road City Street State Maps Rand Mcnally Gousha Amoco Standard OilVintage 1938 Shell Oil Road Map & Radio Log California Coast Vancouver Canada Gulf Oil 1947 Road Map Of FloridaCollection Of 5 Gasoline Company Boat Cruising Maps - 1960'sGoodyear Tires State Of Pennsylvania Highway Road Map 1920s Vintage TravelVintage Chevron Supreme Gasoline San Fernando Valley/la Map-crisp/bright ColorGulf Oil 1941 Road Map Of MichiganGulf Oil 1954 Road Map Of FloridaStreetwise Dallas Map - Laminated Road Map Of Dallas