Navigating Without Road Maps: The Early Business of Automobile Route Guide Publishing in the United States
In the United States, automobile route guides were important precursors to the road maps that Americans are familiar with today. Listing turn-by-turn directions between cities, they helped drivers navigate unmarked, local roads. This paper examines the early business of route guide publishing through the Official Automobile Blue Book series of guides. It focuses specifically on the expansion, contraction, and eventual decline of the Blue Book publishing empire and also the work of professional “pathfinders” that formed the company’s data-gathering infrastructure. Be- ginning in 1901 with only one volume, the series steadily grew until 1920, when thirteen volumes were required to record thousands of routes throughout the country. Bankruptcy and corporate restructuring in 1921 forced the publishers to condense the guide into a four-volume set in 1922. Competition from emerging sheet maps, along with the nationwide standardization of highway numbers, pushed a switch to an atlas format in 1926. Blue Books, however, could not remain competitive and disappeared after 1937. “Pathfinders” were employed by the publishers and equipped with reliable automobiles. Soon they developed a shorthand notation system for recording field notes and efficiently incorporating them into the development workflow. Although pathfinders did not call themselves cartographers, they were geographical data field collectors and considered their work to be an “art and a science,” much the same as modern-day cartographers. The paper concludes with some comments about the place of route guides in the history of American commercial cartography and draws some parallels between “pathfinders” and the digital road mappers of today.