When Dave Goforth bought his first car in 1970, he would pick up free road maps at gas stations — to the point where all the seat pockets were stuffed with maps. Yet, he couldn’t quite bring himself to get rid of them.
Then, at an antiques store, he bought a road map as a collectible. Goforth called this his “turning point” to becoming an avid collector, and member No. 178 of the Road Map Collectors Association (RMCA). The RMCA is a non-profit organization dedicated to the collection and preservation of historic road maps from the automobile age, including folding road maps, road atlases and street guides.
Long before Google Maps and GPS – and even folding road maps – motorists had to stop every few kilometres to ask for directions. Oil companies started to give away free road maps at their service stations to increase customer loyalty. Provincial and state governments then got in on the action, promoting cultural and scenic attractions to tourists. An icon of the golden era of automobiles (defined by some as the period from the 1920s to 1970s) road maps served primarily as a navigation tool but were often also hand-detailed pieces of art that doubled as a souvenir from a road trip.
“People collect for various reasons,” Goforth said. “I like them as information sources, but I also appreciate the art and design of them. In the 1920s and ’30s, (with) the art deco style, some of them are just spectacular pieces of art.”
At one point, Goforth had about 2,000 road maps, but when he and his wife downsized from a house to a condo, moving from Toronto to New Brunswick, he also downsized his collection to focus it solely on Canadian road maps, which he catalogues on an Excel spreadsheet.
“What interests me is the maps developed by the provinces and states — not just what they added to the road system (each year) but what information they chose to put on the maps,” said Goforth. “Early on it became clear they wanted to appeal to tourists.” For example, many maps in the 1920s and ’30s have supplementary information on where to stay and even where to hunt.
The development of road systems also shows up in the maps, “driven by tourism — not by the need to get to resources or security or anything like that,” said Goforth. “In many cases you didn’t get the shortest, most efficient route — you got the one with scenery on it.” Anyone who has driven around the Gaspe Peninsula knows the drive is spectacular, “and it was designed to be spectacular, it was made to show off the beauty of the area,” he said.
But, of course, there’s also the thrill of the chase. Goforth’s historic New Brunswick road maps collection is nearly complete, but he’s still on the hunt for an elusive 1941 version. While the 1940 provincial map was printed as per usual, the 1941 map is the same version with a rubber-stamped ‘1941’ on it, likely because Canada was preoccupied more with the Second World War then updating information about its road network. It’s a map Goforth’s searching for but hasn’t yet found.
Discovering lost maps
The RMCA was created in 1996 by enthusiasts who started trading road maps — and swapping information to find elusive maps for their collections. Now the group has several hundred active members in the U.S., Canada and Europe. And, in non-pandemic times, members meet annually at the Road Map Expo in the U.S.
“It’s not like (collecting) coins or stamps,” said Gary Spaid, president of the RMCA, who lives in Arkansas. “There’s an official guide for coins and stamps. We know how many the government minted or printed.” But there’s no definitive list of how many road maps were issued by oil companies or how many maps were printed by private companies, he said.
“There’s always the possibility of finding one,” said Spaid. This is why the RMCA created an extensive cataloguing system on its website of all the road maps known to exist, drawing on the collective knowledge of its members.
“One fascinating thing to me about maps is what they portray on the covers, what that says about the culture at the time,” said Spaid. In the 1930s, for example, maps started showing women behind the wheels. “Which was a big deal — they were trying to encourage women to travel, because if you travel more, you spend more,” he said.
There are also what Spaid calls “Holy Grail maps,” elusive maps that are known to exist, but no one has yet found a physical copy. In 1913, for example, Gulf Oil opened what is considered the first true service station in Pittsburgh. Prior to the opening, it distributed a handmade Pittsburgh-area map to residents. No one has yet found a physical copy of that map. Gulf also produced day-trip touring maps in the 1930s. “Those are pretty scarce — very, very hard to find,” Spaid said.
The oldest map in Goforth’s collection wasn’t designed for automobiles. It’s from 1899, published by hunting and fishing magazine Field & Stream. “They had a map of New Brunswick and I thought it was acceptable (as a road map) because it has lines, and it calls them wagon roads.”
There are also some maps with a personal connection in his collection. Goforth’s grandfather was the president of the Ontario Motor League (OML) in 1921, and at the RMCA expo in 2016 he came across a 1921 OML map of Ontario. “I was able to get that as a token of my grandfather,” he said.