A map showing, as its primary feature, highways, byways, and other roads, especially covering an area larger than a city (maps of roads within a city are generally referred to as street maps).

The first road maps in the United States were published in the late 19th century for bicyclists, both by groups such as the League of American Wheelmen and commercial printing companies such as Rand McNally. When the automobile appeared, it was a fairly simple matter for the cartographers to overprint the bicycle maps with another color to indicate roads that were suitable for cars.

However, there was one major problem with attempting to use these early road maps: most roads weren't marked in any way. To successfully navigate, early motorists had to use publications such as the American Automobile Association's "Official Automobile Blue Book" series, a collection of books which gave step-by-step directions, in text form, for getting from one town to another, or Rand McNally's "Photo-Auto Guide" series, which supplemented the text directions with actual photographs of each turn in a given route.

A slightly less bulky solution was the strip map, which was an extremely detailed map of one specific route between two specific cities (the forerunner of the AAA's Triptik system).

Finally, movements began to spread to mark the various roads between cities, some led by local roadside restaurants, inns, and other businesses; some led by automobile products manufacturers, most notably the B.F. Goodrich tire company, with its "Goodrich Guide Post" signs; and one major effort led by Rand McNally itself creating a system of "blazed trails," each with different color markings. The marked roads finally made it easy to produce maps showing all the roads in a given area, although with several competing marking systems, Rand McNally's maps only showed roads they'd marked, Goodrich's only showed roads they'd marked, and so on. The situation was eventually cleared up by the various state governments, which began to assign numbers to their officially maintained highways in the late 1910s; the Federal government began assigning its own numbers to a system of interstate highways in the mid-1920s.

Eventually, the principal source for road maps came to be gas stations and the oil companies that supplied their products, which gave away maps for free. According to legend, the first oil company road map giveaway was in 1913, when the Gulf Oil Company promoted its first gas station in Pittsburgh by mailing a map of Allegheny County to every registered automobile owner in the county. The promotion was successful, and so in 1914, Gulf offered maps of Pennsylvania and other nearby states both through the mail and at the station. Following World War I, other oil companies began to follow suit. Most of these maps not only promoted the company and its stations, they also promoted the idea of driving, with many having beautifully illustrated covers that were true works of art.

The free gas station road map lasted as an ubiquitous concept in the United States until 1973, and the first oil crisis. Suddenly, the oil companies found profits slipping as the price of gas skyrocketed and began to cut services to economize. Suddenly, instead of being handed a free map by a gas station attendant after he filled the gas tank and wiped the windshield, motorists were going inside the station and paying a dollar or more for a map after pumping their own gas. By the 1980s, most oil companies eliminated even the expense of having special maps produced for them, instead selling maps labeled for Rand McNally or the other cartographic company that had produced them. Road maps also came to be available at bookstores and specialty travel stores, next to the travel books.

Reference (and home to lots of pretty pictures): "Hitting the Road: The Art of the American Road Map," by Douglas A. Yorke Jr., John Margolies, and Eric Baker

Historical road maps

The Peutinger Table

The Romans can probably be credited with producing the world's first road map. The original Roman map has been lost although a copy of it was made by a monk in 1265. The copy was found by Konrad Celtis (1459-1508) in 1494 who bequeathed it to Konrad Peutinger (1465-1547) (one source says that Celtis' employer, Maximilian I, gave the map to Peutinger). However it ended up in his hands, the map became known as Tabula peutingeriana or the Peutinger Table.

The map was in the form of a roll that was 6.8 m x 0.34 m (it has been separated into eleven segments for preservation purposes). It depicts the Roman Empire as it would have existed in the 4th century. The original Roman map would have run from the Atlantic, through the Middle East and on through India to Sri Lanka. The far western section (parts of England, Spain and North Africa) is missing in the copy and were probably also missing in the original when the copy was made.

The Peutinger Table is a road map in that it focuses on the Roman road system (it shows 70,000 Roman miles or about 100,000 km of roads). The map is not drawn to scale although distances between points are often marked on the map.

The Peutinger Table is in Austria's Nationalbibliothek (i.e. National Library) in Vienna.

The Gough Map

Richard Gough (1735-1809) purchased a map at an auction in 1774. Very little is known about the map's origins other than that it was probably produced in about 1350. The map, which is now known as the Gough Map, depicts British cities, major towns, lakes, rivers and major roads. In fact, it is probably the first map of Great Britain to depict roads between cities and towns.

The map attempts to place each feature correctly in topological terms although no attempt is made to maintain a consistent scale and many features are quite crude. For example, Scotland looks like a finger sticking out to the north of England. Except for rivers, the map doesn't show geographical features. It does show Hadrian's Wall and the locations of major castles. The map is oriented with east at the top.

The map is currently in the Bodleian Museum at Oxford. Facsimile copies of the map can apparently be purchased in the Museum's shop for £15 which is a little over one hundred times what Richard Gough paid for the original!

Etzlaub's road and route maps

Erhard Etzlaub (1460?-1532), was a cartographer and instrument maker living in Nuremberg. He published road maps for the area around Nuermberg and other German cities in 1492. In 1501 he published his Rom Weg or Rome Way map. The purpose of the map was to assist pilgrims from roughly Paris to Budapest and as far north as Denmark in finding their way to Rome (considering that there were only 100 copies of the map printed, one wonders how many pilgrims ever actually saw the map). As the goal of the map was to show routes to Rome, it focuses on showing how to get to Rome and would be less useful to, for example, someone trying to get from Paris to Budapest. Unlike most modern maps, south was at the top of the map, possibly because this gave Rome a prominent location (i.e. near the top of the map).

The 1501 Rom Weg map is said to be the rarest printed map in the world and Etzlaub's maps are considered by some to be the first modern road maps.

You might want to take a look at his spectacular 1501 map at http://lazarus.elte.hu/~zoltorok/Cartartweb/cartart_etzlaub.htm (last accessed 2002/10/05; the web site seems to be rather unreliable).

Ogilby's Britannia

John Ogilby (1600-1676) published Britannia - a Geographical and Historical Description of the Principal Roads thereof in 1675. Britannia was published as a set of 100 single-sided 49 cm by 35 cm map sheets. The set contains county maps of English counties and road maps of the major routes through England. The county maps are conventional maps (i.e. intended to provide a to-scale representation of the geography of each county). The road maps are strip maps depicting a route between two cities or towns.

Each road map sheet depicts a scroll upon which is drawn a strip map showing the route between two locations. The strip maps are literally strips (about 5 cm wide) showing the road between the two locations with cities, towns, crossroads and landmarks along the way. Since the real routes weren't straight, compass roses are drawn every few miles to indicate which direction is north. The scale of the maps is one inch to the mile (1760 yards).

A second edition of Ogilby's maps was published in 1698. They can be distinguished by the fact that the 1675 edition had no plate numbers whereas the 1698 edition has plate numbers on each map.

Owen and Bowen's Britannia Depicta

Possibly the first practical road maps were based on Ogilby's maps. Britannia Depicta by John Owen and Emanuel Bowen was published in 1720 by Thomas Bowles. This book of English double-sided maps was of a size (13cm x 19cm x 2cm) that could be easily carried by the travellers of the day. The maps are essentially Ogilby's county and strip maps. The strip maps are laid out in three vertical strips on each page with the road running along the middle of each strip. Although clearly intended to be a traveller's map book, the pages have been decorated with coats of arms and descriptive text provides local historical information.

The last contemporary printing of the Owen and Bowen maps was in about 1764. I've seen a fascimile edition that was published sometime in the last fourty or so years although that it exists is about all that I know about it.

How did they travel without road maps?

Travel in times long gone by was a very different experience than it is today. Distances were long and the risk of being attacked and robbed (or worse) was very real. When people did travel, they generally found their way by travelling with someone who already knew the way (i.e. a guide) or by using books that described the route including where to stay along the way (it should be pointed out that creating a useful map describing a reasonably large area was almost certainly a more complex undertaking than producing a written description of how to get around in the same area).

Personal notes

Have a look at http://www.bouletfermat.com/owen_and_bowen/ for images of the six Owen and Bowen maps that I own. The yellow of the paper and especially the hand colouring on my Owen and Bowen maps makes them look quite spectacular and antique. The original maps were not coloured and were printed on clean white paper. i.e. my maps are actually in quite poor condition and the hand colouring has damaged or possibly even destroyed ther value as historical artifacts.

Sadly, I was told by one antique dealer that it has become fairly common (i.e. almost fashionable) for a purchaser of black and white antique maps and/or prints to arrange to have them coloured. Sigh.

I also find it personally troublesome that my purchase of individual sheets of Owen and Bowen maps might have contributed, however indirectly, to the destruction of intact Owen and Bowen road map books (in my (weak) defense, I didn't know that they were pages from a book when I bought them). Considering that I've seen an entire 273 page (i.e. 132 sheet) book in reasonably good condition for £1,000 and the individual sheets tend to cost about £50 would certainly seem to support my concern.

I've also got a 1675 Ogilby map (Abington to Monmouth). It's also in rather poor condition (I've seen much better ones at antique sales in London for under £200). These were originally sold as a set of separate sheets which means that I, at worst, contributed to the breakup of a set. Hmmm . . .


  • "Online Edition of Antique Maps" by Carl Moreland & David Bannister located at http://www.antiquemaps.co.uk/book/index.html (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "Peutinger Table ~ Third Century" located at http://sio.midco.net/danstopicalstamps/peutinger.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "The Peutinger Table" located at http://www.roman-britain.org/peutinger.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "Tabula Peutingeriana 100 A.D." (and a few pages directly linked from this page) located at http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/Ancient%20Web%20Pages/120.html (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "Peutinger, Konrad (1465 - 1547)" located at http://www.xrefer.com/entry/252843 (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "Celtis, Konrad (1465 - 1547)" located at http://www.xrefer.com/entry/251862 (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "Map makers" located at http://www.biffvernon.freeserve.co.uk/mapmakers.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "MAP ROOM - Descriptions of the map images" located at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/guides/maps/webmapsf.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "Etzlaub RomWeg" located at http://lazarus.elte.hu/~zoltorok/Cartartweb/cartart_etzlaub.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "John Ogilby" located at http://www.mapforum.com/01/ogilby.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "All about John Ogilby" located at http://www.antiquemaps.com/uk/roads/ogilhist.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • the web page "List of Maps in Britannia Depicta" located at http://www.antiquemaps.com/uk/info/oblist.htm (last accessed 2002/10/06)
  • maps 63/64, 135/136 and 155/156 from Britannia Depicta by John Owen and Emanuel Bowen; published by Thomas Bowles; 1720-1764
  • Ogilby's Abington to Monmouth map from Britannia - a Geographical and Historical Description of the Principal Roads thereof; 1675

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.