Forty million people are expected to visit the New York World's Fair this year, 1.5 million are sure to stare at the bears in Yellowstone, Zion National Park will consider its gorge ungorgeous if it does not draw 700,000, and the lowliest Scenic Overlook is set to rival the drabbest Point of Interest in trying to be the first to break its attendance record. America, in short, is off on its annual highway march, and it is certain that it will go forth and will get back, all without knowing that it owes a debt to the ingenuity of a Mr. William Akin of Pittsburgh and to the enterprise of such duster-and-veil-era motorists as Emily Post, who popularized touring for what it often still is—an adventuresome sport.
It was Mr. Akin who thought of that unique U.S. institution, the free road map, and who thus became the founder of one of the smallest, most secretive, most competitive and least credited segments of the tourist business.
In this modern age 200 million road maps a year are being donated to U.S. motorists by oil companies. The object of this generosity is the same as it was half a century ago: give the American tourist an idea that there is someplace he ought to see, and he will not rest easy until he sees it, burning untold gas and oil in the process. At first the places to see were pretty basic stuff, say Chicago or Mount Hood. But then began a conflict among the companies to put more and better landmarks on their maps than their competitors could offer. The more America travels, the sterner the struggle gets. A new Tidewater Oil Company map of New York and Long Island, for instance, lists 167 yacht and boat clubs that visitors may want to know about, 65 airports and seaplane bases, 184 golf and country clubs and 435 Points of Interest. Some of these may be of doubtful interest to visitors from the provinces—seeing the Rikers Island Penitentiary would make for a dull Sunday afternoon—but more often the Points of Interest on road maps quicken an obscure curiosity. What is that House of Mystery near Artist Lake on Long Island? What is the Zwaanendael House? How does one get to the narrow-gauge railroad that runs through the cranberry bogs near Buzzards Bay? What is the Weaverville Joss House in northern California, hard by Glass Mountain? And why is Glass Mountain given a parenthetical description: "(A Mass of Jet Black Obsidian Glass!")? What roads lead to Craters of the Moon National Monument, so tersely described on the map as "Weird and impressive. Contains many caves and craters. Closely resembles the surface of the moon"?
Since the highways and back roads have been so thoroughly mapped in these past 50 years, the mapmakers obviously have been driven to some extremes in finding Points of Interest that are really interesting. So new mapmaking trails are blazed. Free road maps have become the sportsman's guide. For years many maps indicated prime fishing and hunting country. For example, the Chevron Points of Interest and Touring Map of Idaho, produced by the Goushà Company, carried a line about Pend Oreille Lake: "Famed for its huge Kamloops trout which sometimes attain 30 or more pounds in weight." But the new maps, like Shell's fishing guides to Arkansas and Louisiana, are marked with different symbols to show the different species of fish to be caught in every important river and lake in the state, along with the roads to them, campgrounds and boat-launching sites.
June 21, 1964
Mr. Akin began all this on a glorious day in 1914. He was driving his 1912 Chalmers down Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh when his great idea occurred to him. The reason he was driving on Baum Boulevard was that there were not many other streets suitable for motoring. A court battle had prevented the building of trolley lines, which made Baum and Grant Boulevard, connecting with it, "favorite grounds for automobiling," according to Pittsburgh How to See It, a contemporary guidebook. The drive from one extremity to the other took eight minutes. But even such an ardent motorist as Mr. Akin grew a little tired of shuttling back and forth in eight-minute dashes, in spite of the inspiring view of the beautiful residences high above the Monongahela River. So it came to Mr. Akin that if maps were readily available of the country that lay beyond, motorists would venture upon these distant roads, and in the process they would have to buy larger quantities of gasoline.
Hurrying home to the Ansonia Apartments, he made a rough 10-by-12-inch map of the area. The next morning he carried it to the office of Gale Nutty, the manager of The Gulf Refining Co., then a small company housed on the 18th floor of an annex of the Frick Building. Mr. Akin proposed that the maps be mailed free to anybody who owned a car. The competitive situation in the oil business was so tough at this time that Akin would probably have been warmly received if he had suggested giving away automobiles to stimulate the sale of gasoline. Mr. Nutty told Akin to get on with the free maps before they became standard procedure—as in Standard Oil. Ten thousand maps were mailed as a starter, followed by monthly maps, each suggesting a different Point of Interest reachable in a one-day auto tour from Pittsburgh. The next year 300,000 maps of the highways in the different north-eastern states were mailed to car owners in each state. Akin, who had a little advertising business of his own at the time, moved it into the Gulf office, and carried on from there. The maps were made by local draftsmen, but more and more people were required to check them and bring them up to date. Akin was soon devoting all his time to the project, and in 1917 became advertising manager of Gulf. By that time road maps were being handed out feverishly everywhere, and the oil companies were locked in a gigantic struggle to see which could give away the finest, most accurate and up-to-date. The struggle has never stopped. Each of the 200 million maps now being given away each year costs from 5¢ to 8¢, and the oil companies are not being idly generous. They mean business.
Free road maps are an institution unique to America. The only study ever made of them was a scholarly account by Dr. Walter Ristow of The Library of Congress. He found that these maps, constantly checked by millions of motorists, have had a powerful influence on the folkways of the country. In the very early days the oil companies frequently charged each other with copying. They craftily began to insert errors in each map they made, and if these errors appeared in another company's map the titans of business would publicly lunge at each other's throats. Such deliberate errors were known as thief catchers. Working quietly away in the drafting room of an oil company, a mapmaker would dream up a small river, lake or mountain, and place it in a remote portion of a state. Or the spelling of a place-name might be adroitly changed. In some respects, the early mapmakers resembled characters in today's demented cartoons, gleefully moving communities from one road to another or making up entirely fictitious towns and placing them on some otherwise unoccupied portion of a highway. Thus the pleasant little town of Strong, Me., located on a fork of the Sandy River in the western section of the state, was briefly changed to Story, Me. on Shell maps. Over the years the thief catchers caused enormous confusion, which was complicated by the fact that free auto road maps were more widely distributed than commercial maps, so people thought the road map was right and all the other maps were wrong. Thus when an oil-company map-maker built an imaginary town it became hard to unbuild. Moreover, the oil-company maps were often better than locally manufactured products, so the local producers would change their maps as well. Thief catchers were usually removed after one edition of a map, but the errors were perpetuated on maps that were based on the original. Sometimes a small community that found its name misspelled would obligingly change to conform to the name on the map, figuring, who was it to argue with an oil company.
The greatest victim of all this geographical flummery was the pioneer motorist who drove to some spot marked on the road with the name of a town and found nothing there. "Beware of the so-called road map; it is a snare and a delusion," wrote Arthur Jerome Eddy in Two Thousand Miles in an Automobile. A road that looked good on a map might turn into a quagmire, he warned. It was necessary to ask specific questions: "Are there any sand hills? Is the road bottomless anywhere?" If one had plenty of time, it was all right to ask directions of men or boys, because they answered at length and wanted to look over the car. "Of a group of school children, the girls will answer more quickly and accurately than the boys.... If passing quickly, ask a woman."
But if maps fired imaginations and made tourism at least possible, the roads they so optimistically showed made it all but impossible. It was left to authors to chronicle the madness of early motoring and thus at the same time prove that automobile travel was 1) survivable and 2) stimulating. Books about driving cars make up a fairly extensive branch of American letters, a sort of half-commercialized subliterature, characterized by works that are good-natured, engaging, sometimes funny, often valuable history, but largely devoted to breakdowns, flat tires and getting lost. Eddy, who wrote as early as 1902, was one of the most forceful, a highway prophet of doom. "In a country so vast and sparsely settled as North America," he said, "it is not conceivable that within the next century a network of fine roads will cover the land." On the contrary, automakers had to produce better cars: "For generations to come there will be soft roads, sandy roads, rocky roads, hilly roads, muddy roads—and the American automobile must be constructed to cover them as they are."
Innumerable literary motorists believed him. "I was the first woman to cross the continent at the wheel of a motor car," Alice Huyler Ramsay wrote in Veil, Duster and Tire Iron, a work largely devoted to the progress of a Maxwell-Briscoe of 1909 over appalling roads from New York to San Francisco. A forthright Vassar girl, Miss Ramsay and a college friend entered their red Maxwell roadster in a reliability race from New York to Philadelphia and won. This so excited Carl Kelsy, the sales manager of Maxwell, that he arranged for them to drive from one Maxwell dealer to the next, all the way across the land—"The greatest promotional idea of my career!" he cried. Since his greatest previous promotional idea had been to drive a Maxwell up the grand stairway of a hotel, the girls might have been more cautious.
Provided with an expensive green car—the latest model—they set out on June 9, 1909 from the Maxwell showroom on Broadway and eventually reached the Pacific coast. But, as promotional efforts go, the commercial value must have been disappointing. Since their trip was prior to the free-road-map era, they were lost much of the time. Their directions came from an automobile-club blue book that contained such instructions as: "At 11.6 miles, yellow house and barn on rt. Turn left." This was to take them into Cleveland, but as they drove on and on and nothing yellow came into sight, they stopped and asked. "There's been a lot of trouble about that," said an informant. The owner had painted his buildings green.
The most exhaustively detailed of these feminine accounts of early U.S. motoring is Emily Post's astonishing By Motor to the Golden Gate. The authority on U.S. etiquette made a fortune telling Americans which fork to use, what to wear, where to go and what to do. World War I prevented her taking her usual trip to Europe to bring back to her readers the latest developments in the field of correct behavior, so in April 1915, with her son as driver, she set out across the U.S. The vehicle she selected for this odyssey was a dinosaur of a car with a huge wheel base of 144 inches and a road clearance of only eight inches.
Mrs. Post had a good deal in common with the characters in Proust's novels, a sort of lordly impracticality that was coupled with shrewd common sense. She seems to have been essentially a good-natured, comfort-loving housewife who felt compelled to live up to the aristocratic role her fame had imposed on her, and was constantly bemoaning some cultural or culinary shortcoming of her countrymen. She haughtily equipped her vehicle with a small shovel, African water bags, 100 feet of rope, extra sparkplugs, extra valves and valve springs, tire chains and tires—a set of tires cost $347.04. Her first breakdown was just outside Utica, N.Y.—a broken oil pipe. She was fully aware of the oddity of an authority on etiquette reporting on the manners of garagemen, and she made the most of it. Far from lording it over the provincials, she was constantly thrilled by their elegance. It was difficult for her to write a sentence that did not end with an exclamation point, and she let herself go: "The beautiful, wide, white marble lobby of the brand-new Hotel Utica!" Even the misadventures were exclamatory: "We wandered around a mountain and a wood for about ten miles before we discovered a signpost pointing the way to Albany!" The elegance and graciousness extended to the barns and outbuildings: "And such farms!" she wrote in excitement.
In short, Mrs. Post made her readers feel that they were discovering heretofore unsuspected distinctions and picturesque attractions all around them. "Really quite faultless service," she murmured in a high-toned aside about the Statler in Buffalo. The Hotel Oliver in South Bend, Ind. was "clean and well-run," and of the food at the Statler in Cleveland she said: "Never, even in France, had we had better or more perfectly cooked chicken casserole!" But her comments on food—and she would not have to change them very much today—grew increasingly fretful as she proceeded west. "The meals—those anemic, chilled potatoes, beans full of strings, everything slapped on a plate every which way, and everything tasting as though it had come out of the same dishwater!"
Yet she had a durable courage. The roads were really dangerous for a car 12 feet long that was constantly and inelegantly scraping its bottom. The Lincoln Highway turned out to be a sway backed embankment, covered with black slime, with steep slopes on both sides. The hotels became monstrous confines like something out of Kafka—"These dust-filled hideous rooms, cleaned only by a carpet sweeper," she cried out, with unmistakable sincerity, "These sooty, ugly, busy, noisy towns." A day of rain and misery brought her to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and a hotel room with "dingy, bottle-green paper, a stained carpet, a bathroom where the plumbing wouldn't work, a depressing view of a torn-up street." A kind of madness entered social life as well. The sight to be seen at Des Moines turned out to be a display of stuffed buffaloes, and when she was entertained in Omaha the conversation revolved around the great cyclone that had swept the area in 1912. So she drove to Cheyenne, Wyo. and then south to Albuquerque and across Arizona to Winslow, along dust-covered roads that were often only tire tracks half-buried in the sand. Carrying 45 extra gallons of gasoline, because none was available in the desert, the party slept in the car. Somewhere along about Canyon de Chelly, which has remained fairly empty country to this day, Mrs. Post reflected that if the car broke down again, "no living being knew our whereabouts, and we might quite easily have been dust before anyone would have passed our way." Reaching Winslow, she loaded her automobile on a Southern Pacific freight car and rode the rest of the way in a Pullman, a thoroughly practical solution. Such putting of cars on trains or boats was a common practice in the early days of motoring. In fact, many early road maps carried steamship information on their margins.
The literary efforts of these pioneer motorists were, incidentally, remarkably free of poetic tribute to the beauty of the land. Mrs. Effie Price Gladding in Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway wrote with feeling of how "the trail across Nevada could be marked by whisky bottles if by no other signs." And Winifred Hawkridge Dixon, perhaps the best literary stylist of all the early motorists, wrote in Westward Hoboes of finding Texas in 1923 to be "chock full of socialists, horsethieves and Baptists." Her greatest complaint was a conspiracy she discovered among repairmen. It seemed that in every Texas garage the night man had taken a "vow of silence, more binding and terrible than that of the Dominican friars," with regard to anything that had been promised by the day man. When Miss Dixon ultimately escaped from these terrors she drove as hard as possible across the West Texas plains. She knew she looked a little wild, dusty and hard-driven with her veils streaming in the wind, but she had no notion of how she startled the natives until she stopped at a farmhouse a few miles east of El Paso. No one answered her knock, so she pushed the door open. The grown men inside fell backward and were speechless until she took off her veils. When she asked for directions, one of them said, "When you come in just now, I thought it was Maw dressed up to fool us." This odd reply completely baffled Miss Dixon. "My glimpse of his septuagenarian parent would not have led me to suspect her of such prankish-ness," she wrote, "but appearances are often deceitful. She may have been the life of the family, doubling them up with helpless mirth by her impersonations."
Such were the trials of motoring during the era when William Akin and Gulf teamed up to give away road maps. Most authors of touring books wrote about being lost, and sometimes that was all they wrote about. Miss Dixon's trip took her through Arizona on the Apache Trail, then north to Waterton Lakes in Canada and back to Yellowstone Park, but she confessed becoming hopelessly lost as she neared home in Indiana. A. L. Westgard, known as the Daniel Boone of the Gasoline Age, wore out 18 cars in 18 transcontinental trips and wrote in Tales of a Pathfinder of being lost for as long as three days at a time. In Fill 'er Up, Bellamy Partridge wrote that a 1912 motorist "would not have been surprised if Chicago turned out to be Milwaukee...and there was no such thing as a road map west of Chicago." A friend of Westgard's gave him a list of the approximate distances between towns almost to California, and as a rule motorists exchanged such maps as they had if they met someone coming the other way.
How did you tell where you were on a map if there were no obvious landmarks? It was not easy. Following Keyes Good Road Book out of Douglas, Ariz., Miss Dixon came to "windmill marking two forks, pass windmill on left"—and wound up 17 miles in the desert, her car lodged in a sandy, V-shaped gulch under a blazing sun.
One of the first routes to have markers on it was the Lincoln Highway. The signs were promoted by such manufacturers as Carl Fisher, who was the founder of Prest-O-Lite, and Henry Joy, the guiding spirit of the Packard Motor Car Co. They were red-white-and-blue cardboard markers tacked up at intervals, and if you did not see them it meant you were not on the Lincoln Highway anymore. Or else it meant there had been a lot of rain and the signs had dissolved. In 1917 or thereabouts the Chicago map-making firm of Rand McNally & Co. began numbering and marking roads. They sold what were called Blazed Trail Maps, and the marks on the roads corresponded with the numbers on the maps.
As advertising manager and map genius of Gulf, Akin contracted with Rand McNally to produce Gulf's maps, and the giveaway map war picked up. By 1920 Gulf was handing its gas buyers 16 million maps a year. Two years later Otto Lindberg, a young Finnish-born draftsman who had made automobile-club road maps, produced a map for Standard Oil on a speculative basis. The firm took it, and Lindberg's company, General Drafting, now makes about 30 million maps for Standard Oil companies every year. In 1926 Harry Goushà, a Rand McNally mapmaker of French descent, joined with two other Rand McNally employees to form the first firm—The H. M. Goushà Company—that made auto road maps exclusively. Goushà is now turning out about 75 million maps a year for Texaco, Cities Service, Sunoco, Tidewater, Shell and others.
These three companies produce almost all U.S. road maps and, in the tradition of the early days, they regard each other with the greatest suspicion. If you go from one to the other you have a distinct impression of a security check being under way. New maps cost about $50,000 just to produce, and large staffs are required—Goushà has about 140 employees in its San Jose office alone. Each new map is studded with all sorts of interesting destinations, such as new campgrounds, bird sanctuaries, mineral springs, arboretums, fish hatcheries, waterfalls, boat-launching facilities and spots at which three different states are visible from a lookout point on a road. It would be cruel to ridicule these innocent spectacles, for the competing companies labor to find new Points of Interest and tremble at the thought of missing out on one.
This partly explains the proliferation of Points of Interest where the interest would seem to be limited. A random survey of Points produces such spectacles as "one of the largest hog markets in the country" near Indianapolis; the unique situation at Greensburg, Ind., where a tree can be seen growing in the tower of the local courthouse; the birthplace of the first lieutenant governor of Illinois; the million-dollar stairway in the New York capitol at Albany; and the Land of Makebelieve on the Ausable River in New York, complete with a fairy-tale village and a western town. There are more than 3,000 museums in the U.S., each of which appears as a Point of Interest: the Maple Museum in Barre, Vt., devoted to maple syrup; the Museum of the Fur Trade near Chadron, Neb.; the Museum of North Carolina Minerals in Gillespie Gap; the Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm; the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace Museum and Snuff Mill in Kingston, R.I.; and on and on. From the birthplace of James Whitcomb Riley you can proceed by easy stages to the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan and then to the Clock Museum, the Museum of Musical Instruments and on to the Hall of Fame of the Trotter at Goshen, N.Y., Mark Twain's Study, the Salt Museum and, with enough energy, the Sievert Springs Norwegian Museum in Decorah, Iowa. How far can the search for Points of Interest go? Many a mile, one presumes. Before long the map industry may even look to itself and duly note the sand dune where Winifred Dixon beached her Cadillac and the very spot on Baum Boulevard where William Akin got his grand idea to give maps to the American motorist.