Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

American Promotional Road Mapping in the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

American Promotional Road Mapping in the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Introduction

That all maps are rhetorical as well as utilitarian is a familiar, if still contested, idea (Black 1997; Harley 2001; Wood 1992). Recent scholarship (Crampton 1994; Herb 1997; Pickles 1992; Ramaswamy 2001; Schulten 1998; Thongchai 1994) has also shown how political agendas were advanced during the twentieth century by conscious manipulation of maps designed for public consumption. The use of persuasive cartographic design in the commercial arena has garnered less attention, in spite of the fact that such examples are all around us (Francaviglia 2000; Monmonier 1996, pp. 58-70).

Maps have been sold as consumer goods since at least the sixteenth century (Woodward 1996; Pedley 2001). Their use to promote other forms of consumption is, however, a more recent development, dating from the late nineteenth century. The deployment of promotional cartography has been most intense among tourists, for what seems an obvious reason. Travel is a geographical enterprise, involving the consumption of geographic information at various stages from the planning of the trip to its completion. Yet, travelers have managed with no more than written itineraries or orally conveyed directions for most of human history (Delano-Smith 1996). Only in the modern world, where travelers are able to range widely and rapidly by means under their own control, have maps been necessary to sort out and navigate the options. For automobile travelers who venture beyond the boundaries of their daily routine, maps are almost indispensable. In the early history of motoring in the United States travelers were largely dependent on verbal itineraries, many of which were compiled and published informally.

The efforts of highway and automobile interests to create transcontinental travel habits required simple graphic forms that covered more ground. By the late 1920s oil companies, motor clubs, and state governments had adopted the widespread free distribution of road maps as one of their major marketing tools. Their deployment of promotional cartography was enormous. A Rand McNally executive estimated the annual output of oil company road maps to be 70 million in 1934 (Grant 1956, p. 17). Ristow (1964, p. 623) estimated the 1964 output of "gas maps" at 200 million and the total production for the previous fifty years at 5 billion copies. The addition of the production by other sources yields a conservative estimate approaching a half billion road maps published annually during the 1950s and 1960s, and tens of billions over the century.

The reach of this promotional effort can be measured in more than numerical terms. To a considerable extent, American popular culture has adopted the common highway map as a metaphor for the car culture; so it appears in the occasional automobile advertisement, in humorous editorial cartoons, and in cinematic references--as recently in the promotional graphics for the 2000 Tom Green film Road Trip. Almost all of the major literary accounts of American automobile trips seem compelled to reckon with road maps near the beginning of the journey. Their reflections range from cynical (Bryson 1989, pp. 77-78; Miller 1945, p. 210) to metaphorical (Kerouac 1957) 1993, pp. 12-13; Heat-Moon 1982, [vii]) to reverent. Early in The Majic Bus, Douglas Brinkley's account of' a mobile college course in American history and culture he had led in the 1980s, we come across the author's description of Frank, the bus driver chosen for the trip, and his road map:

 
   Frank opened the secret storage compartment above the driver's seat and 
   pulled down three objects he considered essential for our journey: First, a 
   small black-and-white framed photograph of a sneering Clint 
   Eastwood--Frank's only real hero.... A framed poster of a hanged cowboy, 
   dangling from a tree ... with the caption NEVER STEAL A STETSON. Finally he 
   pulled out a giant Rand McNally road map of the United States, which he 
   unrolled with all the dignity and respect of a Talmudic scholar opening a 
   sacred scroll. … 
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