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 Gilmore Lion Head Motor Oil Race Car Red Lion Gasoline West Coast MapAdvertising Red Indian Pathfinder Road Map _ Aviation Oil_ Sky Chief Gas _30's1940 Western Oil & Fuel Co Husky Gasoline Iowa Hwy Road Map1932 Associated Oil Co Cycol Veedol California Highway MapLimited Edition Johnny Cupcakes Road Map 2010 Suitcase Tour Men's SmallEsso Gas Map Rack1920s White Star Oil Refining Company Michigan Ontario Road Map Guide Book10 Vintage Advertising Gas & Oil Serving Station State & Highway Road MapsVtg Richfield Gas Califonia Highway Road Map Gas Station Advertising Martin Milner's Road Trip Kit - Two Maps And One Map Measurer - MmpcCalexico- 3 Cd Lot - Service& Repair/alone Again Or/98-99 Road Map-cdVtg 1931 Pure Oil Pathfinder Road Map For De Md Va Wv Gas Station Advertising Lot Of 12 Vintage Road Maps Indianapolis, Alaska, Ohio, Wyoming23 Vintage Road Maps From The 50s - 60s From Gas Stations Which No Longer ExistMap Of Australia Poster 100x87.5cm **free Shipping** Wall Chart Road Guide #g019Texaco Maps Sign Gasoline Service Station Road Map Travel Motor Oil Gas Pump1971 1972 1973 1974 Dodge Charger Map Light Switche Plymouth Road RunnerC.1950's Mobil Road Guide / Map, Northern Territory, AustraliaVtg Mobilgas Mobil Western States Road Map Gas Station Advertising Nurburgring German Germany Vinyl Road Map Vw Mercedes Audi Bmw Inc. Race Track5 Vintage Texaco&gulf Boat Cruising Charts Cruisegide Maps Safety Great Lakes+1930 Cities Service Ohio Road And Air Map FoldedVintage Leather Winnebago Road Atlas Atlases Map Cover Army Air Force Life Raft Charts 5 Oil Cloth Maps Part Of Life Raft Kit 10/21/48Vintage Mayflower Warehouse Truck Movers Us Canada Mexico Road Maps 195411 Old State Road Maps From 1950s & 1960s~texas~idaho~kansas~arkansas~nebraska+Vintage Lot Of 3 Chicago Illinois Road Maps 1968 1976 Standard Gasoline & Oil1938 Southwest Road Map Magnolia Oil Gas Texas Oklahoma Arkansas Nm Route 66Very-rare Vintage-1946 Imperial Canada Road Map ( On Every Highway ) !Lot Of 11 Vintage Us Road Maps From The 1940sLot Of 4 Vintage Original 1940s Up New York City Ny Nj Pa Gas Station Road Maps7 Vintage Gulf Oil Road Maps New York Florida Washington Miami Indiana IllinoisNm 1931 Standard Road Map North & South Carolina,essso / Atlas Tires 1939 Pan-am Alabama Road Highway Map Petroleum Gasoline Motor Oil Stations Old1946 Kyso/standard Oil Florida Road Map W/ Points Of Interest1950s Sinclair Oil Road Map Delaware Maryland Virginia West Virginia Dinosaur3 Vintage Gas Station Road Maps, Denver, Boston, Missouri, Phillips 66, Atlantic012017 Oem Chrysler Sebring Convertible Auto Dim Map Light Rear View MirrorAntique Buffalo New York Map Creek Indian Reservation Standard Oil Company Nr1920 Official Goodrich Road Map Of Kentucky Tennessee - FoldedLot Of 2 Vintage Maps Automobile Club Of Southern California, Los Angeles 1964 Marathon Oil Official Road Map Of Kentucky Tennessee - FoldedVtg 1950's Cities Service Ontario Road Map Excellent Condition BbVintage Undated Mwm Texas Official Road Highway Map Petroleum Gas Oil Stations1920s California State Automobile Assn Strip Map Reno To Lake TahoeVintage 1940s Atlanta Georgia Travel Guide Road MapVintage Road Map Lot Mt Yellowstone Flathead Valley Glacier 1966 1974 Conoco Gas1956 Humble Oil & Refining Co Road Map Texas1934 Sinclair Gas Road Map Wisconsin Colorful Cover Auto And Gas Pumps1967 Gulf Oil Gas Road Map Of Nashville Tennessee Lot Of Vintage Esso Gas Oil Maps Eastern United States, New England, Etc.!! 2013 Road Map Of France & Benelux (belgium, Netherlands Luxembourg) New Aaa Road Map To Lost Mines & Buried Treasures Of CaliforniaThree Great Vintage Kentucky Road Maps1938 Esso -maryland, Delaware, D.c., Virginia, W.virginia Pictorial Road MapLot Of 20 Old Gas Station Maps