By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
I have to admit it—I love maps. It does not matter whether they are old or new, as long as they are maps.
I have had a fondness for those folded charts since I was a kid growing up in North Camden. Not too long ago I wrote a column that included old time gasoline stations. While doing it I had flashback memories of those map collecting days. I think now it would be nice to take a trip back into the world of cartography of gas station maps.
I spent a lot of time researching gas station maps and found a little information. There is a world of map collectors out there, but very little history on them (the maps). Years before the energy crises in the 1970s all gas stations provided customers with FREE maps. That's right—free maps.
My research showed that the birth of the automobile also brought the desire to travel and see the country. Apparently motorists got tired of asking for directions so oil companies started offering them directions—via the road map. The companies hoped to increase customer loyalty with the free charts.
According to the Oil Company Road Maps of Pennsylvania Web site the first oil company to distribute road maps was credited to the Gulf Oil Company. They say that in 1913 Gulf opened the first drive-in gas station in Pittsburgh’s east-end and began handing out road maps. The Web site shows that the early years of oil company maps, 1915 to 1925, are dominated by Gulf as few other oil companies issued maps, and until about 1925 Gulf was the only oil company to issue revised maps annually. But the Road Map Collectors of America point out on their Web site that around 1914 Standard Oil of California, now EXXON, developed a prototype design for its gas stations. They put their employees in uniforms, provided free air for tires, and gave away road maps.
The map collectors' site shows that W. B. AKINS of Pittsburgh, an advertising company, made the first maps. In 1915 the business went to the Automobile Blue Book Company; in 1922 it went to Rand McNally and in 1927 to the H. M. Gousha Company.
That site also shows that there were basically three types: state maps, local maps, and trip maps. The trip maps showed a highlighted route between two (or more) cities.
And of course the road maps were good for business. The Pennsylvania road map site claims that Gulf Oil, formed in 1901, gave out the free road maps as advertising for the gas stations they started building in 1913. Early ones, they say, had more lubrication advertising than later ones, and the reason was that engines of that time needed frequent oil changes. The maps, also, would help tourists find their way and like a first aid kit or a couple of extra tools; they were a travel necessity that was stored in every ones glove box.
My fascination for the road charts evolved when I first found out they were free. I guess I was in my early teens, around 1944 or 1945. I cannot remember what it was that piqued my interest in those colorful charts. We did not travel much when we were kids. My mother did not drive, so I was a teenager before I saw the ocean. The Atlantic, that is. The map collecting could have been a dream world for me, magically taking me to places that I have never visited— following routes out of Camden for miles to places I longed to see.
It was then that my quest for the maps started with a round of service stations in the area collecting as many as possible. Maps for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and if I found one for Maryland or Delaware it was like finding gold.
I also discovered the different designs that each oil company used. Some folded different and printing varied for others.
My method of collecting was simple. After visiting a station and successfully getting a map I would tuck it in my belt and cover it with my shirt after leaving the station. Then I would head out for the next station.
My first stops were usually the Sinclair, Mobile and Atlantic stations that were located at 7th and Cooper streets. Then I would head down Broadway to South Camden, visiting as may stations as I could.
When I got home I would spread them out on the living room floor and carefully examine each and every one of them. When I was finished I would store them in old cigar boxes that we collected from the corner candy and cigar store.
As time went on, maps became costlier and competition among oil companies became more fierce. The energy crises that hit the world in the 1970s caused oil companies to cut expenses, detouring free maps from gas station racks to official tourism offices, like AAA. Motorists then were able to secure free maps when they joined automobile clubs for their trip routing services, or they were forced to purchase them from other sources.
Today the GPS (Global Positioning System) is the in thing for trips and has quickly become the 21st Century's answer to the folded map. It could eventually replace any and all paper maps and trip routing services.
GPS or not, my love for maps has never really waned and never will. While I no longer get them from service stations I can still get my supply from an auto club and the National Geographic Society and I treat them with utmost care.