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December 20, 2011

Turn-by-turn driving directions — in 1910


Above, a page from one of Rand-McNally's 1910 Photo-Auto Guides, a then-unique collection of a "series of photographic reproductions of all turns and intersecting crossroads, with arrows pointing to the right road, giving distances between turning points, and outline maps of the entire route."


How is this not as good — in fact, much better considering there are actual photos rather than cartoon renderings — as Google Maps, Garmin and their ilk?

Nick Paumgarten's April 24, 2006 New Yorker article, "Getting There: The Science of Driving Directions," sheds light on how Rand-McNally got in on the ground floor of navigating the U.S. by car.

Wrote Paumgarten, "It is a testament both to the early allure of the automobile and to the difficulty of traveling very far in one that, in 1907, Andrew McNally II, the grandson of the co-founder of Rand McNally & Company, chose to spend his honeymoon in Milwaukee. He and his bride drove there, from their home town of Chicago. The way was mostly unpaved and unmarked. In those days, there were no route numbers or state roads; in Wisconsin, there were merely old cart and carriage thoroughfares, whose primary purpose was the conveyance of food from farm to market. It wasn’t yet clear how drivers would find their way around. Navigation depended, mainly, on asking people along the way where to go next—an untenable state of affairs, it would seem, as long as the drivers were men, which most of them were."

And: "Rand McNally started out printing railway tickets and flyers, and then, in the eighteen-seventies, branched out into the business of publishing wax-engraved maps for gold prospectors and other hardy tourists. These were maps more of terrain than of roads through it. Still, Andrew McNally II had a sense that the automobile might enhance the way-finding side of the business, and so, on this honeymoon trip, he strapped a camera onto the front fender of his car and, at every junction — every right or left turn — stopped and snapped a photograph. He and his bride did the same on the return trip. Back in Chicago, McNally compiled the photographs into a booklet, with a little arrow in each photograph indicating the proper direction to take. The booklet was called a Photo-Auto Guide and was essentially a driver’s-eye view of the way to Milwaukee, at least as it looked that spring. (Obsolescence loomed; a new barn or a fallen oak could alter the appearance of the road...."

Shades of Google and its Street View Cars.

Here is a Chicago-to-Milwaukee & Milwaukee-to-Chicago Photo-Auto Guide in its entirety, enabled so you can browse it page by page,


beautifully photographed and captioned with arrows showing the driver just which way to turn, along with many other parenthetical observations, such as this under Image 103 (photo No. 22 — second from top): "Central Avenue, Highland Park. Gasoline and oils can be had one block north on left. The garage is conducted by A.G. McPherson, and is considered the best repair shop on the north shore."

Start with photo No. 1 and enter a time machine as you take a scenic drive in 1910.

Utterly sublime.

[This fascinating slice of Americana via Cary Sternick who wrote, "In the days of no street signs and without GPS, here is a way to go cross-country in a car."]

December 20, 2011 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: rob | Dec 20, 2011 11:42:15 PM

Thanks Joe, I find this fascinating. There go's my night and many more to come. Maybe I don't like you so much right now.

Posted by: Frisky | Dec 20, 2011 10:04:35 PM

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