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 Florida State Map Souvenir Shell Pink Printed Tablecloth! Nokia 500 Auto Navigation Sat Nav With Europe Maps + Fm Music & BluetoothAntique Book Locke's Good Road Maps Arizona New Mexico Sothern California 19201932 Associated Oil Co Cycol Veedol California Highway MapVintage 1930's Highway Atlas Of Usa Canada Mexico Road Maps Gallup Map&supply Co1920s White Star Oil Refining Company Michigan Ontario Road Map Guide BookVintage Wilcox Oil And Gas Kansas MapAntique Book Locke's Good Road Maps Rare Auto Coast To Coast 192010 Vintage Advertising Gas & Oil Serving Station State & Highway Road MapsLot Of Vintage Road Maps-travel-advertising Gas OilMartin Milner's Road Trip Kit - Two Maps And One Map Measurer - MmpcEsso Gas Map Rack1925 Charlton's Simplified Road Maps Of OntarioCalexico- 3 Cd Lot - Service& Repair/alone Again Or/98-99 Road Map-cd1927 Rand Mcnally Georgia Auto Road MapTexaco Maps Sign Gasoline Service Station Road Map Travel Motor Oil Gas PumpLot Of Vintage Maps- Mobil- Texaco-gulf- 1950's-60's-70's- Gas Station-americanaVintage Gilmore Lion Head Motor Oil Race Car Red Lion Gasoline West Coast MapSunoco Service Station New York State Highway Road Map 1930s Vintage Travel1927 Official Automobile Blue Book Vol 1 MapsLot Of 12 Vintage Road Maps Indianapolis, Alaska, Ohio, WyomingNos ? Koster Auto-lite Co. Inc. Light Cigar Lighter Map Light 1920s Packard FordMap Of Australia Poster 100x87.5cm **free Shipping** Wall Chart Road Guide #g0191971 1972 1973 1974 Dodge Charger Map Light Switche Plymouth Road Runner7 Vintage Gulf Oil Road Maps New York Florida Washington Miami Indiana Illinois1930's Texaco Road Map North And South DakotaLeather Bound Road Map Atlas 1inch To 5miles Nurburgring German Germany Vinyl Road Map Vw Mercedes Audi Bmw Inc. Race TrackRare Vintage 1913 Toronto Ontario Harbour Street Road Map Sign Beach RailroadVery-rare Vintage-1946 Imperial Canada Road Map ( On Every Highway ) !1930 Southern California Automobile Highway Map Security First Bank Los AngelesNm 1931 Standard Road Map North & South Carolina,essso / Atlas Tires Vintage 1940s Atlanta Georgia Travel Guide Road MapVintage California Summertime State Map Souvenir Travel Water Decal Sticker AutoVintage Shell Road Map Maps Lot Of 3 Mexico Kentucky Tennessee Ohio In Turnpike1942 Shell Oil Seattle/tacoma Road Map Colorful2vintage 1950's Atlantic Road Maps ;pennsyvania And NewarkVintage 1952 Standard Oil Atlanta And Vicinity Road Map Boy Scout On FrontVintage 1961 Standard Oil Atlanta And Vicinity Road Map Vintage Lot Of 3 Chicago Illinois Road Maps 1968 1976 Standard Gasoline & Oil1948 Cities Service Gas Road Map Of OntarioVtg 1931 Pure Oil Pathfinder Road Map For De Md Va Wv Gas Station Advertising 1962 Michelin France Road Map Guide Book Hardcover Hc1920 Official Goodrich Road Map Of Kentucky Tennessee - Folded Ohio 1935 Gulf Oil Dealer Road Maps Rare 1936 Ford V81934 Sinclair Road Map Of Illinois Including The U.s, Interstate Route "66 "Vintage Leather Winnebago Road Atlas Atlases Map Cover Vintage Undated Mwm Texas Official Road Highway Map Petroleum Gas Oil Stations1920s California State Automobile Assn Strip Map Reno To Lake TahoeLot Of 7 Chevron Standard Oil Road Maps 1970-1973 Wa. Or. Ca. Seattle-portland1967 Gulf Oil Gas Road Map Of Nashville TennesseeVintage Mayflower Warehouse Truck Movers Us Canada Mexico Road Maps 1954Arizona-standard Oil Road Map-golden Gate Exposition-1939 Road MapVintage Shell Oil Road Map Of Washington-1940 Census Lot Of Vintage Esso Gas Oil Maps Eastern United States, New England, Etc.!!Road Map To Lost Mines & Buried Treasures Of CaliforniaVintage 1957 Road Map - North & South Carolina And GeorgiaVintage 1950's Road Map Of Penn.1967 Texaco Rand Mcnally Road Map Of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode IslandLot Of 3 Vintage 1957 1964 1960's Kansas Maps Sinclair Phillips 66 Standard Oil