Rand McNally Shows the Way

5 min read

| By J. Robert Parks |

It’s difficult for most people, much less young people, to imagine a time before cars, but the rise of the automobile is only about 100 years old. In fact, it was 100 years ago this week, on April 15, 1924, that the first Rand McNally Road Atlas was published to help drivers navigate to destinations. Librarians and teachers can find a wealth of resources in Gale In Context: U.S. History to help students understand how cars changed U.S. culture in the 1920s, as well as how other new inventions and innovations have transformed society.

The first cars, or horseless carriages as they were called, were developed in the 1880s and 1890s, but it wasn’t until Ransom Olds and then Henry Ford developed the assembly line for automobile manufacturing that cars became something working-class people could own. The first Ford Model T was produced in 1908, and by 1923 Ford was making 2 million cars every year, priced cheap enough so that company employees could own one. The 1920s started with 88 car manufacturers in the United States, but by the end of the decade, the Big Three—Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—dominated the industry.

The popularization of the automobile that decade had an enormous impact on U.S. culture. Drivers campaigned for more and better roads, especially between cities. This wouldn’t become a reality until the 1950s with the Interstate Highway System. Long before that, however, states were developing turnpikes to separate drivers from the local traffic of carriages, bikes, and other vehicles. The ability to drive from one city to another expanded opportunities for business and also created a sense that people could relocate more easily if they wanted to, leading to a much more mobile culture.

Automobiles also opened up new possibilities for leisure and vacations. It isn’t a coincidence that the system of national and state parks grew as car ownership became more common. Amusement parks had grown popular in the 1890s and early twentieth century, but they changed in the 1920s, as the ones in urban areas declined and new ones opened in places where land was cheaper, which allowed for the development of roller coasters.

The embrace of the automobile also changed people’s lives in more general ways. One of the things I still remember from high school history (many years ago) was my ninth-grade teacher explaining how cars in the 1920s led to greater independence for young people, especially women—changing dating rituals and mores. It was the first time I realized how one part of society could have an impact on so many other parts.

As for Rand McNally and the road atlas, that grew out of the desire oil companies had in the 1910s to connect with customers. The oil companies would give away maps in the hopes of building goodwill and fostering repeat business. Rand McNally began as a Chicago printing shop in the mid-nineteenth century, printing train tickets and railroad guides. It branched out into mapmaking later in the nineteenth century with educational maps and early in the twentieth century with city road maps.

Its first national road atlas, published in 1924, was called the Rand McNally Auto Chum, and that soon became a fixture in people’s cars, helping direct drivers on the best route and helping those who were lost find their way. A full-color road atlas, what people of a certain age will remember, was first published in 1960. The internet, then GPS, and especially the smartphone changed people’s need for maps, and by the late 1990s, Rand McNally was struggling. It went into bankruptcy soon after and has been sold multiple times. In recent years, it has transformed itself into a company providing fleet management solutions. It continues to publish a road atlas, however, one especially designed for long-distance truck drivers.

I suspect many students have never even seen an atlas and might have no idea how to read it. More than how cars have transformed culture, the internet and smartphones have altered almost every area of life. That’s one of the benefits of studying history: it helps students understand how a change in one part of life can affect so many others. It won’t be too long before they have the same experience as their parents: “I remember when . . .”

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About the Author

J. Robert Parks is a former professor and frequent contributor to Gale In Context: U.S. History and Gale In Context: World History who enjoys thinking about how our understanding of history affects and reflects contemporary culture.

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