Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

The Shifting Agendas of Midwestern Official State Highway Maps

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

The Shifting Agendas of Midwestern Official State Highway Maps

Article excerpt

Nowhere are the motives for mapping more transparent than in the history of automobile-highway cartography. Beginning in the mid-1910s, oil companies pioneered the practice of "giving away" maps to their customers as premiums, hoping that motorists would reward the company's generosity with regular patronage. By the early 1930s oil-company cartography had evolved into a sophisticated advertising medium. Company logos were freely splashed about the maps and on their covers, while the accompanying text promoted specific products and services available at rapidly growing chains of service stations. Oil companies worked with their cartographic partners, chiefly Rand McNally, H. M. Gousha, and the General Drafting Company, to establish travel bureaus that distributed maps, literature, and advice to customers. They added information about points of interest to their maps, suggested itineraries, and included colorful cover illustrations of representative landscapes or well-known sites and landmarks--in the interest of encouraging gasoline consumption and the growth of their customer base. (1) From a social and economic perspective, the complimentary oil-company road map was an entirely new kind of map--high in quality, yet free to consumers because it was underwritten by its promotional value.

The success of oil-company maps has been well documented, but relatively little has been written about their cousins, the official state highway maps given away by state government agencies. (2) Denis Wood's brilliant deconstruction of the 1978-1979 official North Carolina highway map in The Power of Maps reveals that the publication of official state highway maps is often deeply concerned with promoting state interests. (3) In much the same way that free oil-company maps were intended to reinforce corporate identities, inspire loyalty, and promote consumption, official state highway maps asserted the authority of state governments over road making and road travel within their territories, inspired the loyalty of their citizens, and persuaded noncitizens to visit and spend money.

In this article we will examine the evolution of the official state highway maps published in seven midwestern states, including the six states west of Pennsylvania that border the Great Lakes, plus Iowa. (4) These maps were published and distributed primarily by state highway departments or commissions until the 1970s, when most states merged their highway agencies into unified departments of transportation. In some states, departments of conservation or natural resources, which administered state parks, forests, and recreational areas, contributed to these maps or produced their own maps. We have examined some early examples of these. However, we have generally excluded from our survey maps and cartographic publications of state departments of tourism, which have, particularly in the past four decades, played a major role in the distribution of highway and travel information to tourists. (5) Although we acknowledge that the promotion of tourism has been a major factor in state highway mapping in the Midwest since the 1920s, our goal has been to clarify how this motive for mapping has competed with other agendas and practices within the confines of the somewhat narrower genre of maps issued by state highway departments.

Indeed, a recurrent theme in this article is the apparent tug-of-war between two broad promotional agendas during the roughly eighty years of official state highway map publication in the Midwest. The first of these agendas was the promotion of the geographical identity of the state. Targeted generally at tourists, this agenda drew upon the state's history, culture, economy, climate, topography, and geographical situation to form easily digestible images intended to stimulate motoring activity in the state. The second agenda was the promotion of the state government itself as a competent, active, and responsible force serving the needs of both state residents and visitors. …

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