You are Here:
A Journey in Road Maps
We've taken them for granted/aaa/074/centennial. throw-aways/aaa/074/centennial. issued every year/aaa/074/centennial. free/aaa/074/centennial. colorful and easy to read/aaa/074/centennial. Luckily not everyone has treated their maps in this way.  Here are some photos of a variety of historic road maps with some highway history too.
1890's:  Bicycles were popular, very few cars, terrible roads.
The motorcar was invented and built here and there in backyard sheds with greater or lesser success.  As automobile manufacturing began, these high priced horseless carriages were one of a number of late 19th century inventions to become the fascination of the wealthy.  The roads weren't good enough for bicycles, there were no route numbers, and hardly any signs or names.  The maps reflected the times and were equally bad.  This is a map of the Central and Northern New Jersey area from the pre-motorcar era.  The primary form of transportation between towns was the electric interurban (the trolley), so there was little need for good roads or maps, except in metropolitan areas where horse and carriage, and the bicycle, could be used  Publisher: Gustav Kobbe, 1890.
1900's:  More automobiles but no good place to drive them.

There were several automobile manufacturers and they were being purchased by the wealthy/aaa/074/centennial. but the roads were terrible and laws restricting motorcar use were still around.  AAA was founded to deal with issues such as these.  Maps of this era were primarily narrative route descriptions and even photo guides.  Maps did exist, but as with the earlier ones, without route numbers they weren't very helpful.  The first maps contracted by AAA were produced by the Survey Map Company of New York.  There were large cards, some with narrative route descriptions and some with maps.  They were distributed in packets for various regions.  The photos show one of the 1905 packets for the Catskill-Albany Region and a detail of one of the maps.  Only the red roads were "good roads" but remember that they weren't paved and were rarely even gravel.

Photo route guides were often used to help the early motorists navigate. The route below was published in a book of California Roads about 1910, by Hamilton's.  As you can see, these were difficult to use/aaa/074/centennial. and what if someone cut the "yucca forest" down?  AAA had contracted with the Automobile Blue Book Publishing Company to distribute their guide books with AAA embossed covers and a few pages of AAA advertising.  The ABBP books contained hundreds of pages of route descriptions and maps.  Here is a route segment from Mystic to Groton, CT taken from a larger route description.  The miles are total cumulative for the trip with the shorter distance being miles between each direction.

64.6 mi.  0.2   Mystic; Monument at 4 corners, turn left with trolley.
64.7 mi.  0.1   Irregular 4 corners; straight thru with tracks across bridge
64.9 mi.  0.2   4 corners; turn left with trolley
65.1 mi.  0.2  Fork at power station; keep left with trolley
65.2 mi.  0.1  4 corners; turn left with trolley, follow same past W. Mystic Sta. (over to left - 65.7)
67.2 mi.  2.0  Noank. Right-hand road in outskirts of town; turn right, leaving trolley - upgrade,
                      over Fort Hill.
67.8 mi.  0.6  3 corners just beyond small stone bridge at foot of grade; turn right
68.9 mi.  1.1  Left-hand road between house and barn; turn left downgrade; trolley comes in from
                      left 70.1.  Pass Poquonock  Bridge P. O. 70.2, following trolley on good dirt.
71.0 mi.  2.1  Left-hand road; turn left with trolley, under RR. 71.2
71.5 mi   0.5  End of road; turn right with trolley.
73.4 mi.  2.9  Groton

1910's:  Automobiles became readily available, roads were slowly improving but there were no route numbers and few signs.

Road building is expensive and always has been.  Couple that with governments saying it isn't their responsibility, cars not exactly being popular, and nobody wanting to pay higher taxes and you'll understand a bit about the difficult times for car owners. In 1911, AAA began to publish some of their own road maps.  Route descriptions were still the primary way of getting around in this decade/aaa/074/centennial. but keeping one eye on the odometer, another on the route description and another on the road/aaa/074/centennial. well you see the problem.   Colorful signs were going up on poles all over the country identifying the major routes. Some of the most noted were the Lincoln Highway, National Old Trail, Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, Dixie highway,  etc.  There were hundreds of these named roads.  The photo above shows some of the signs as listed on a map.  Bigger news was that Wisconsin had begun a  program to number its roads!

Shown here is the cover of the 1911 New England map and a section of the map showing Rhode Island and part of Cape Cod.  Only the main roads were shown. 




The current, popular South Central Pennsylvania map was not the first AAA map of the region/aaa/074/centennial. here is a detail from the 1915 map distributed by the Auto Club of Philadelphia.

This is a card announcing the opening of the new Topango Caņon road outside of Los Angeles in 1915.  The Auto Club of Southern California organized a caravan of motorists along the route shown on the card.  A barbeque was to be held in the canyon, and free pennants for the occasion were available at the club headquarters.

1920's:  Time of prosperity, the Auto Age had begun. state and federal route numbers.  Roads and maps were improving.
Road surfacing had begun in earnest.  Notice the word surfacing/aaa/074/centennial. this did not mean that roads were paved with concrete or asphalt. Maps that had been black on white were now often using another color to show the best roads.  The image on the right is from a 1922 AAA map of Pennsylvania.  The colored roads indicated the pole markings for the named roads.  The red, white and blue road was the Lincoln Highway.  The road sections with hatch markings indicated paved surfaces. 


AAA published their first TourBook in 1926.  One is pictured here along with a detail of the Harrisburg, PA, listing.  A detailed full-size state map was inserted in the back of the book.  !926 was the year that many roads received the U.S. Highway designation.  The familiar black and white shields were going up everywhere, replacing the interesting but confusing maze of colored band markings.  It was now possible to follow the same route numbers between states and even coast-to-coast.  The numbering of highways made both travel and reading road maps easier and more practical. 


1930's:  The Great Depression took the cars from those without work, but many worked and traveled on even better roads with much better maps.
The prosperity of the "Roaring Twenties" didn't last and the Great Depression was surely a devastating period.  However, highways needed paving and people were given work/aaa/074/centennial.  Improvements in detail, color, readability and reliability were important cartographic developments.  Of course, AAA was a leader in sending out "pathfinders" to travel the roads measuring distance and noting construction, surface, etc.  The photo on the right shows one of the early AAA Pathfinders comparing the roads with his map/aaa/074/centennial. or maybe he was lost!  Strip maps which had been part of the various route books and early TourBook guides were being issued on separate cards.  Here is one printed for the routes from Harrisburg and Gettysburg to Atlantic City.  The first actual TripTik routings were produced in 1937.
1940's:  The war years.  Not much travel,  road improvements or map publishing.   But after the war/aaa/074/centennial.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, heralding a new era in highway design, but World War II changed everything.  Tourism all but ended.  There was gasoline rationing, maps weren't being printed and road-building ground to a halt.  After the war though, times would never be the same.  Almost everyone had a car and travel simply exploded.  
1950's:  Booms everywhere/aaa/074/centennial. babies, automobiles, travel.  The roads were very congested though.
Route 66 nostalgia?  This was the time period.  But so much time was spent at traffic lights, whether commuting to work from the new suburbs or on a vacation along the US routes.  President Eisenhower had seen the German Autobahns first-hand and saw how rapidly vehicles and equipment could be moved.  The U. S. System of National Defense Highways was born.  Initially the idea of military use was prominent in the early Cold War era, but travel quickly became the overriding use.  TripTik routings became one of the most popular forms of navigation.
1960's:  Road construction!  The Interstate System.  Cheap gas, relatively inexpensive cars, full color maps.
In the past decades, road changes on maps were very often changes in road surface, as dirt became gravel, which became macadam, which became concrete or asphalt paving.  But in the sixties the changes were the new interstates.  These new roads limited entrance and exits to interchanges/aaa/074/centennial. no more traffic lights, restaurants, attractions, cabins, etc. along the road.  Maps showed the interstates as proposed, under construction and completed and each year the changes were apparent, inch by inch.  The image here shows the Capital Beltway under construction.  Maps that began as black on white and for many years were black white and red, were nearly all in full color by the end of the decade.  The color allowed the amount of information on a map to grow as colors shaded parks, military bases and more.  Maps were often issued for special events, such as World's Fairs, Olympic Games, etc.  AAA issued a nice map to help people visit Civil War battlefields and historic sites at the time of the Civil War Centennial.
1970's:  Fuel shortages!  Much higher gasoline prices.  Interstate system nears completion.
Travel grew at an uninterrupted pace until 1973.  There were problems in the oil supply, prices rose and lines of vehicles could be found where gasoline was available.  There was some stability for a few years but again in 1979 we faced similar situations.  More and more miles of the interstate system were completed.  TripTik design improved by showing less side roads, but added color made them easier to read.  AAA was 75 in 1977.  Look at the special map cover for that year.
1980's:  Interstates finished/aaa/074/centennial. but repairs are needed.  AAA's map competition vanishes.
The interstates were finished but higher than expected usage and increased trucking caused a deterioration in the system.  A pattern developed of spring summer and fall road construction.  By the eighties, few oil companies bothered with maps.  If motorists were to obtain maps they had to buy them, get them from state highway departments, or join AAA.  Contracting out for more and more city and regional maps, in addition to AAA's own publishing, hundreds of titles became available to our members.
1990's to current:  Computers, Internet, GPS, but still people want paper maps!
From the nineties through the present, the digital revolution is changing the way we look at maps.  There is ever increasing accuracy and more types of maps available. Maps can be printed from computer programs and the Internet.  Global Positioning Satellite systems allow in vehicle navigation.  Does this replace the need for paper maps?  Not yet, but maybe sometime.  Still, there is nothing like exploring a few maps spread out in front looking for the best places and the best ways.  AAA is happy to be providing the maps and the technology to enhance the touring experience of its members as we enter the next hundred years.
The United States Postal Service issued an AAA commemorative stamp in 1952 featuring the AAA Safety Patrol.

Map History

Oil Company Maps
AAA was not the only organization to issue road maps.  Auto travel was becoming  incredibly popular and other auto club organizations and the oil companies were quick to get involved.  Maps distributed free from gasoline stations was a novel concept but one that worked/aaa/074/centennial. travel was encouraged by colorful free maps, which meant more oil products sold.  From the twenties until the oil shortages of the seventies, these maps were the expectation of the traveling public, and they were a factor in improving the quality of all maps as cartographers worked hard to improve their work. When oil companies ended their road map programs after the oil shortages, AAA became the major source of "free" maps and its membership grew accordingly.

This is a section from one of the first maps to be given away as service stations: 1914 Gulf Oil map of New England.

A route book issued by Havoline Oil in the mid-teens described the route between Harrisburg and Altoona as "dirt roads, some very bad"

Maps were issued all over the world by auto clubs and oil companies.  Here is an interesting map issued by Socony in Japan in the early twenties.

1926 Standard Oil of Kentucky map, showing one of the colorful covers of the era.

During World War II, there was not much traveling, but a keen interest in news and places from the theaters of that war, prompted a number of businesses to issue war maps.  Oil companies, radio stations, newspapers distributed such maps.  Here is a photo of one issued by the Yellow Cab Gasoline Company of Oklahoms.

In 1959, Amoco issued a series of maps with a AAA safety patrol on the cover.

Oil companies gave away millions of maps but didn't need to do it when cars were in line for gas.  This is one of the last from 1978.

You may email this page's author with questions and comments regarding AAA road map history.