Before we move on, I wanted to put up a quick postscript to our look at the history of gas stations. A couple of folks brought up the important point that virtually all of the major petroleum brands gave away free travel maps to customers. I had intended to touch on this on the earlier post, but felt my original idea for it was a bit too cute, and as it was the post ended up bring pretty darn long. The subject certainly deserves a mention, though, so here goes.
Personally, the main thing I remember about the “era of gas station maps” is its end. I recall milling around in a Standard station for what seemed like hours one evening while my Dad’s car was being worked on and noticing a cheesy-looking plastic vending machine, which contained Standard road maps for sale at 50 cents each. This would have been just after the onset of the original oil crisis, around 1974, and I clearly remember thinking “These things used to be free - people aren’t gonna pay for ‘em!” in the northwest suburban Chicago accent in my head. As it turned out, I was right. Not long afterward, gas station-branded maps disappeared altogether.
Jump forward to 1989 or so. I’m on a visit to see my grandparents in Rhode Island - not a month-long excursion like the visits my brother and I enjoyed as kids, but a few days, solo, on my own dime. I was working by then and the trips were much less frequent, about every year and a half or so, when I could spare the time and a few hundred bucks for airfare. One afternoon as my grandfather and I were searching through an old file cabinet (for what I don’t remember), we came upon a couple of stacks of old gas station maps, probably 30 in all. He was the type who saved everything. “Can I have these?” I asked. He said sure, not even bothering to ask why I would want them. My love for things of the past was established, ad nauseam, with the family by then.
And a wonderful find it was, the maps being from many of the major gas chains of the 50’s and 60’s – Esso, Gulf, Standard Oil(s) of Indiana and Kentucky, Sinclair, Phillips 66, Atlantic, Sunoco and more, all with full color covers and great period graphics, most with company credit card ads on the back. There was also a plastic folder from the Humble Touring Service, containing two maps – “Eastern United States” and “Illinois” - and a charming little “Happy Motoring Touring Guide” booklet. The maps were professionally marked up by the Humble Touring staff to show the optimum route from their home in Cedartown, Georgia (My grandfather, a textile industry executive, was exiled to the South along with most of the industry in the 50’s and 60’s. They moved back to Rhode Island upon his retirement.) to Mount Prospect, Illinois - their first trip to visit my folks and me in our new home there in early 1966.
For weeks after I brought the maps home, they sat out in my living room, giving me frequent occasion to reflect on our country’s roadside culture and the many changes that had taken place in the years since they were issued. I still have them.
Three companies produced most of the maps for the various oil firms throughout much of the 20th century - Rand McNally, a Chicago-based firm that began as a printer of train tickets and would later branch out into several different publishing realms, The H.M. Goushá Company, founded by a Rand McNally alumnus and based for most of its existence in San Jose, and General Drafting Corporation of Convent Station, New Jersey, exclusive mapmaker for industry behemoth Standard Oil of New Jersey (Esso and Enco, later Exxon) and some of their client firms, including the pre-Chevron Standard Oil of Kentucky. In the post World War II era, as more and more Americans pursued their “dream vacations” on the highways each year, these three firms did tremendous business producing maps for your friendly corner gas station.
Rand McNally led the pack in promoting giveaway maps as an effective marketing tool for the oil companies. Authors John Jakle and Keith Sculle in their book The Gas Station in America cite a 1924 Rand McNally ad in the National Petroleum News – “Put Your Sign Post in His Pocket”, the copy read, a nod to the fact that most map covers featured a rendering of the oil firm’s station sign on the cover, so “customers would carry (it) everywhere they traveled and be reminded and be constantly reminded of where to buy”.
In a related vein was another great marketing tool, one that provided a very valuable service for motorists in those heady years – the oil company “touring service”, or “travel bureau” as some were called. These were central offices maintained by the oil company to provide customized trip routing for their customers, with some companies providing the service for free and others for a nominal membership fee. Customers would send in a postcard with their point of departure, their destination, the planned dates of their trip, and preference for the “fastest” or “scenic” route. (In later years this information was sometimes phoned in, but long distance rates were prohibitive for many in those days.) Within a few weeks, sooner if the trip was close at hand, a package would arrive in the mail containing maps with the routes hand-marked, frequently accompanied by with travel brochures or other useful information. Some firms, Conoco’s “Touraide” service for example, produced special comb-bound booklets with the required map sections on pages – a welcome substitute for unwieldy foldout maps, especially while driving.
Prominent among these was Standard Oil of New Jersey’s touring service, which originally went by the Esso name, changing to Humble in the 1960’s, then Exxon in its final years. The service was actually operated by General Drafting Company, but touring service staffers “ still acted as if we were public relations employees of the oil company” according to Don Shorock, a 10-year seasonal employee at the service’s New York City offices. On his website, Cartophile, he recounts the experience of working at the Humble Touring Service in detail, a fly-on-the-wall look that I found every bit as fascinating as those Hostess Cake and Oreo factory tours that Mister Rogers took us TV-besotted kids along for in the 70’s. I’d like to think it was Mr. Shorock who mapped out my grandparents’ trip back in ’66. They arrived safely, and I still have pictures of their visit to prove it!
The 1973-74 oil crisis brought the curtain down on the era of free gas station maps and touring services, soon to be followed by the demise of other niceties, such as the widespread availability of full service pumping and automotive repair service. Maps, of course, are still available at many gas stations today, albeit under the publisher’s names rather than those of the oil companies, and at prices well above 50 cents.
The advent of software technology has relegated the entire concept of published road maps to the quaint reaches of the past, of course. With online tools such as MapQuest, the basic function of the “touring service” can be performed in seconds instead of weeks, no postage required. A GPS unit can guide one to their destination without the need to fumble around with an 18 by 28-inch sheet of paper.
Still, I can’t help but wish someone would come out with a GPS that could be spread out over the hood of a car – or a kitchen table.
The circa-1964 photo above depicts a Friendly Sunoco Man helping out a Weekend Admiral with directions, presumably to the nearest recreational body of water. I had one of those Thurston Howell III boating caps as a kid, and would love to pick up another one someday. On second thought, forget the cap – I’ll take the Evinrude “Sweet 16” boat instead!