Long before the bouncy advertising jingle urged car owners, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” brave motorists in the early years of the 20th century set off to explore our country’s highways and byways, imbued with a sense of adventure and guided by a variety of printed maps and books.
Today, these early road maps and motoring guides give a fascinating glimpse into highway travel around the time of the First World War – and are very collectible. Their appeal is broad: They fascinate historians, arouse the passions of map and book collectors, and give delight to lovers of early transportation memorabilia. And they offer a rare glimpse of a countryside, and in many instances a cityscape, that has changed dramatically.
There were no interstate highways 100 years ago – and no cozy motels conveniently spaced along the roads. Urban areas certainly had downtown hotels but the motorist who set off on a journey of more than a day’s drive between cities had to be prepared to camp out along the way. Car owners could buy canvas tents that they could pitch right to the side of their vehicles, with room for cots and folding chairs. The James Field Co. of Rochester, N.Y., sold their Autokamp tent for $40 in the early 1920s; it was carried, rolled up, on the running board. The Schaefer Tent & Awning Co. of Denver made a camping bed that set up right over the car’s seats and utilized the car’s top for protection from the elements.
Camping gear wasn’t all the motorists had to bring along. A 1918 B.F. Goodrich road map told drivers to take one extra casing in a tire cover, two or more inner tubes, one box of patches, a tire sleeve, six valve insides and caps, three dust caps, an air pump and a tired gauge caliper. And a two-page letter form The Nash Motors Company advised a motorist contemplating a trip from upstate New York to Florida in 1919 to pack an extra fan belt and a set of spark plugs.
Early motoring guides referred to drivers who set off through sparsely populated countryside as pioneers, and this brief excerpt from the 1923 Official Automobile Blue Book shows what travel was like back then. The passage covers part of the journey from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers, Florida, an easy trip today on smooth, paved highways:
The first three miles out of Okeechobee is a sand road, but the sand is very loose and deep and the detours along the side are better: the next 39 miles is a poor winding sand-trail across the prairie, with little habitation, then a stretch of 29 miles just beyond Cabbage Patch ferry with no sign of habitation. The Kissimmee River is crossed on a frail scow hauled by a motor row boat. Ferry man lives on east side of the river and can easily be hailed. From Palmdale the road is poor graded sand for 7 miles, then graded marl rock to Fort Myers.
A note further on gives the ferry charges: “Free in daytime, 25 cents until 10 p.m.; 50 cents after.”
Billed as the “Standard Road Guide of America, Established 1901,” and published by the Automobile Blue Book Publishing Co., these Blue Books are a delightful source of information and an interesting, affordable collectible. Copies can be found in used books stores for as little as $40 apiece, and I feel they are certainly worth that and more.
These guides cover the United States in a number of regional volumes, run upwards of 1000 pages, usually contain a fold-out map, along with a number of smaller locator maps, ads for hotels and auto services, and detailed descriptions of how to get from here to there, often with reference to long vanished landmarks.
Side-by-side with the Blue Books were the Green Books. Published by Scarborough Motor Guide Co., the Automobile Green Book was the official guide book of the Automobile Legal Association, and gave motorists touring information in a format similar to the Blue Books. Typically this included detailed mileage and directions. Here’s a sample from a trip from Bretton Woods, N.H. to Portland, Me.:
50.6 W. Bridgton. Straight ahead.
54.7 End of road, house on left; turn right.
56.6 Bridgton. At monument, turn left downgrade, curving right through village.
57.3 Four corners, mill ahead on right; turn right.
61.2 Y; curve left.
A uniform numbering system had yet to be developed for our nation’s highways – it was the mid-1920s and later before state highway departments even started posting road signs – but there were a number of marked routes. Typically these routes were marked by signs placed by various and competing organizations. Early maps and guide books provided a key to these marked routes to help motorists.
Many hotels published tour cards, containing detailed descriptions of individual routes leading into or out of their home city, and joined with other hotels to publish colorful tour guides. These guides, with names like The Capitol Tour, The Ideal Tour and Empire Tours, were usually published in soft cover and contained route information and ads for the participating hotels. The 1910 “New England Hotel Association Tours” book uses flowery prose to drum up business:
With a touch of the steering wheel and a hand on the throttle, one may glide over splendid roads through ever changing scenes of mountain, lake and sea coast, or fertile valley, and as the shades of night fall, be sure of comfort and good cheer at one of those hotels for which New England is famous as for any of her gorgeous scenery.
Other early guides were published by the American Automobile Association, the National Survey in Chester, Vt., and various chambers of commerce. In London, the Royal Automobile Club published their guide and handbook for motorists in the British Isles. All of these guides are interesting and affordably collectible, but like many other paper treasures of the past, they are not always easy to find.
An interesting variant on the motoring guide was Rand McNally’s Photo-Auto Guide which featured black-and-white photographs of the landmarks along a particular route with a brief set of directions for the motorist and a hand-drawn arrow on the face of the photograph. In case you might wonder how a motorist could study the picture in the book and keep his eyes on the road at the same time, you should know that the typical speed limit at that time in built-up areas was a pokey 8 miles per hour. Try driving that slowly the next time you head out for a burger and fries.
Times have changed, and there is no going back – but it is good to cherish what was, to delight in the innocent charm of these days gone by, when even the motorist’s guide book was celebrated in song:
O sing a song of the Guide Book
The Book of motoring miles;
Look at the map at Stony Gap,
Turn east at the Lumber Piles.
You jog left here, you jog right there,
Cross T.R. at Mandelay;
At set of sun – oh, boy, you’ve done
Three hundred and one today!
- Automobile Green Book,1923
I’d be happy to answer your questions on early motoring guides and any other aspect of map collecting, as well as hear suggestions on future columns on the world of maps.