The antique dealer grinned at me from under his toupée, waved me into his booth, and pointed to a framed map of Florida. “Printed in 1850,” proclaimed a hand-lettered sign, “$200”.
The full title of the map read “Johnson’s Florida, by Johnson & Browning,” and it was a handsome copy at only a slightly higher-than-average price – but there was no way it had been printed in 1850.
When I very politely pointed out this fact to the dealer, he became defensive and insisted the date was correct. I tried to explain that Johnson & Browning were the successors to J.H. Colton & Co., who had engraved the original map and published it in their 1855 atlas. But the Johnson imprint didn’t appear until 1860 at the earliest. The dealer got so aggravated with my explanation he started shaking his head so violently I was afraid his hairpiece was going to slide right off… so I walked away .
I hoped that he might relent at some point and correct the date before some unsuspecting customer plunks down 200 smackers and walks away, thinking he’s bought an 1850 map.
This example didn’t involve a huge sum of money, and the 10-or-so year discrepancy in the map’s date may not seem terribly important – unless you’re a map collector.
People who dote on maps will often spend hours in a library doing the research to nail down the exact date a particular map was issued, and, as far as I’m concerned, it is time well spent. Learning is good for the soul – and maps are an ideal subject for study.
It helps to know a little history, of course. If your map of South America, for example, shows Bolivia with a coastline, you know the map was printed before the War of the Pacific (1879 – 1884) when Bolivia lost its seacoast to Chile. And the appearance of West Virginia on a United States map means the map was published after the Mountain State joined the Union in 1863.
There are countless other examples of how context, common sense, and the careful consulting of various reference books can help date an antique map.
For many paper collectors, however, the maps by which they will more likely be stumped are folding road maps, such as the ones that gas stations used to hand out. These very popular collectibles are often found at flea markets and garage sales, and they are also available from dealers who specialize in this type of material.
Most of these road maps have a clearly marked date, but there are still many on which no date can be found. Knowledge of local road construction, or the dates that bridges or tunnels were built, may help date a map. Numbered U.S. routes didn’t start to show up on maps until 1927 or so, and our present, vast Interstate highway system was just a gleam in an engineer’s eye 70 years ago. Printed census figures are sometimes helpful, but occasionally a 1950 map will show a 1940 census.
Learning how to accurately date a road map is actually very easy and enhances your appreciation for the maps themselves. While there were dozens of companies who made maps for the various oil companies over the past 90 years, the three major ones were General Drafting, H.M. Gousha, and Rand McNally.
General Drafting Corp., which published maps for Esso, Enco, Humble, Standard Oil of Kentucky, and a few other oil companies, was the most forthright in tis dating policy, usually printing the year in the legend and sometimes on the cover.
Both Gousha and Rand McNally, on the other hand, often used a code hidden in the margin to date their maps
The H.M. Gousha Compan, founded by former Rand McNally employees, coded their maps with a simple system of one or two letters. These letters will often appear with a string of digits – and sometimes even with other letters.
From 1919 through 1944, Rand McNally also used a simple letter code, with A=1919, B=1920, etc. Beginning in 1945, they shifted to a numbering system, where the initial digit (or digits) revealed the year of publication.
For your convenience, we have provided this handy table that will help you translate the date codes on maps by H.M. Gousha and Rand McNally.
Please enjoy this video (our very first YouTube video) about how to date a road map.