King of the Road Map

Featured Article, Odd Collections, People
on May 28, 2013
Andrew Miller Free paper road maps distributed by oil companies, states and automobile clubs helped travelers find their way across America during the 20th century.

Richard Horwitz is a past president of the Road Map Collectors Association and maintains about 12,000 paper road maps in his personal collection in the basement of his home in Somerset, N.J. (pop. 22,083).

Among his collection is a Sinclair Oil Co. map that he studied at age 10 during a family vacation to Miami Beach, Fla.

Carefully unfolding the map of Florida, Horwitz recalls sitting in the backseat of his family’s 1950 Buick sedan while helping his father navigate a succession of state highways from their home in Chicago. The trip was going well until, somewhere near the Florida Everglades, Horwitz directed his dad on an unauthorized detour to a Seminole Indian reservation that the youngster wanted to visit.

“I got fired,” Horwitz recalls with a smile.

Even so, the short-lived navigational experience sparked his lifelong love of maps. Now 71, Horwitz shares his passion for road maps with fellow collectors and others who appreciate the foldable navigational tool.

“They once made these great little maps,” he says of oil companies such as Sinclair, Gulf, Shell, Esso, Sunoco and Chevron. “You get attached.”

Beginning in the early 1900s, gasoline stations provided free paper maps to increase business and customer loyalty as millions of Americans embarked on road trips during the advent of affordable automobiles. Automobile clubs joined in, along with state and provincial governments promoting their scenic, historic and cultural wonders.

Horwitz’s fascination with maps was further fueled while he attended Indiana University-Bloomington during the early 1960s. As a college student, he drove more than a dozen times from Indiana to California where his parents had relocated. “I got a credit card from a different oil company for each trip and collected road maps from that company all along the way,” recalls Horwitz, who went on to travel much of nation as an Associated Press photo editor.

His passion for collecting maps is less about travel, however, than about his appreciation for their graphic design.

His favorite maps were distributed during the 1920s and 1930s and feature detailed, interesting and sometimes puzzling cover illustrations of tourist attractions and gas stations. For instance, a 1933 Sinclair map features a drawing of a brontosaurus dinosaur roaming the Indiana countryside flanked by a train, airplane and battleship.

Horwitz spends hours studying map covers and has written for the Road Map Collectors Association newsletter on topics such as the story behind Esso’s “Happy Motoring” slogan. He also helped mobilize the group’s 2004 letter-writing campaign chiding syndicated columnist Heloise for suggesting readers wrap gifts in old road maps.

Most collectors specialize in categories such as AAA maps, official state maps or, like Horwitz, those distributed by oil companies until the mid-1970s.

Organized in 1994, the Road Map Collectors Association has about 250 members worldwide, according to Horwitz, now the group’s membership chief. Collectors, who once explored antique stores and collectible shows for vintage road maps, today can search online for navigational treasures on eBay.

While the most valuable maps sell for as much as $50, “people don’t collect road maps for appreciation in value, the way they do stamps or coins,” Horwitz says.

Collectors often have a family member who owned a gas station, enjoy tracing the development of the nation’s roads, or keep maps as travel mementos, says Walt Wimer, 73, an oil company history buff and association board member. “Our most active members are men who traveled with their families in post-war auto travel boom years,” Wimer says.

Today, printed road maps increasingly are displaced by websites operated by businesses such as MapQuest and Google Maps, or by GPS devices and built-in navigation on smartphones. Even Horwitz owns a GPS, but only to supplement his paper AAA maps.

“GPS devices are great for getting you from point to point,” Horwitz says, “but they’re not going to tell you about the tourist attraction that might just be a few miles off to the side. For planning and broader perspective, nothing beats a road map.”