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    

1930s Sinclair-pierce Oil Co. S.a. Road Map Of Mexico1930s Pierce Sinclair Oil Co. Road Map Of Mexico1938 Colonial Beacon Oil Company - Road Map New England & Ny - Esso GasolineRare 1933 Phillips 66 "pin-up Girl" Road Map Of Kansas1932 Bristol Oil And Gas Shell Oil Map. Chilhowie , VaAunt Jemima Sectional Road Map - New England - Printed By George F Cram Co 1920sVintage Mohawk Gasoline Road Map California1930s Marathon Gasoline Gas Station Give Away Road Map Of Texas,running ManVintage Shell Oil Co 1931 Road Map Michigan Shell Petroleum CorporationLot Of 6 Vintage Texaco - Cities Service Gas Station Road Maps - Various Areas 1937 Pan-am Gasoline & Motor Oils Road Map Of TennesseePink Geometric Vintage Oil Drop Map Collar Bib Statement Necklace Earrings Set20 Vintage Gulf Oil Co. Advertising Tourguide Maps (cities) In Good Condition Lot Of 20 Various Vintage Turnpike Road Maps - United States(30) Vintage Gas & Oil Road Maps Gulf - 76 - Sinclair 1950's Tourist YosemiteSignal Oil 1939 Washington/oregon/idaho/montana Highway Map! Nice See!50 States Vintage Road Map Lot - Conoco- Rand Mcnally1930's Oregon Coast Highway Road Map GuideVintage Rand Mcnally 1925 Official Auto Trails Map Iowa Native American CoverC1940s Pure Oil Pathfinder Road Map, Southeastern United States, Seaboard Oil CoRare 1945 Ghq Us Army Streetcar Subway Road Map Tokyo Occupied Japan Railways Aaa Explore Series & Greatest Hits Road Maps Lot Of 9 California Death ValleyBrand New California Road & Recreation Atlas Benchmark Maps (paper Back)Ordnance Survey Road Map Of Lake District,sheet 5 1/2" To 1 Mile,1930Civil War Historical Sites-centennial-aaa-american Automobile Club MapBurundi Road MapVintage 1954 Texaco Oil Company Street Maps Of Memphis And New OrleansGulf Oil 1964 Presidential Election Map1971 Arizona Road MapReklamemarke /poster Stamps Metzler Auto Tires Tyres Map Of The World Purple1977 Lion Oil Maps Of Alabama And GeorgiaMap,uk,road Map, Stafford,lincoln/boston,c1760, By Owen And Bowen1943 Postcard " Tourists' Auto Map Of Cape Cod " W/ Driving DistancesNew California National Geo (map Set Of 3) Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Road AtlasAuto Club Of Southern Calif. Map, "navajo & Hopi Indian Reservations" 1920's?4 Old Shell Bp Road Maps Of England, Wales & Scotland By George Philip & SonsLot 24 United States Road Maps 1970's + 1980'sVintage Old Esso Map C.1961 Civil War 1861-1865 Pictorial Map Battlefields16 Various Vintage Toll Road, Tollway, Thruway, Parkway & Freeway U.s. Road Maps1950 Vintage Cleveland Ohio Road Map Collectible Historic Data 1949Road Map City Of Rome Cim Dept D=store Gulf Gas Station Map/gulf Oil/gas/gas Station MapVintage Phillips 66 Gas Station Photo & MapGirls Fashion Cancy Color Oil Drop Rhinestone Map Design Party Necklace Earrings