Remember When Gas Stations Gave Out Free Maps?

Illustration for article titled Remember When Gas Stations Gave Out Free Maps?

I LOVE maps! New maps, old maps, ancient maps. Atlases, road maps, physical maps, Google maps. I love ‘em all. So what brought this outpouring of emotion? I was going to write about a great road trip, but I came across this gem of a map, and in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, got side tracked. Luckily, my editors don't mind. I hope?

The map in question is a Union 76 road map of California. Remember when gas stations gave out free maps? Yeah, back about the same time they pumped your gas for you, checked the oil, water, and battery, then washed the windshield. Well, smeared the bugs around with a greasy rag. But hey, the guy tried. This is not just any map, but one with census information from the 1950 census. No telling the exact date, there's no copyright date, but judging from the car on the cover, it's early fifties.

Maps like this are a time machine. Close study reveals a host of details about life then and how much we've changed in the past 60 years. The most obvious one is that there are only the Hollywood, Ramona (?!), and Santa Ana Freeways. There is also the Arroyo Seco Parkway. No 405, no 605, not even a Harbor or Santa Monica Freeway! The Hollywood Freeway only goes through Cahuenga Pass and then becomes Ventura Blvd. The Ramona Freeway (which will eventually be the San Bernardino Fwy) ends in El Monte and US Route 60 continues on Garvey Blvd. But wait, there's more! There is no "I" anything. The interstate highway system hadn't happened yet. No Golden State Fwy. US Highway 99 IS San Fernando Blvd! Colorado Blvd in Pasadena IS Route 66. It will be Foothill Blvd from around Duarte. Man, how did we get around without our freeways?


As I looked more closely, especially at the inset for LA, I became aware of other oddities. Many of the freeway numbers we've come to know and loath are there. CA 118 is Foothill Blvd through La Canada and becomes Devonshire St. in the Valley. CA Highway 7, which was assigned to the Long Beach Freeway before it was I-710 was originally Sepulveda Blvd. Yeah, that Sepulveda that today runs alongside the 405! CA 134 is Colorado Blvd through Eagle Rock and Glendale. Some numbers have remained the same. Rosemead Blvd is still Route 19, and Angeles Crest is still Route 2. Whew. Glad there are SOME constants in our lives!

Moving further eastward, Route 66 dominated travel east and along with US 91 are the only major highways through the desert. US 91 is now I-15. Heading north, US 101, 99, and 395 are it. Plenty of side roads of course, but those were the big three. The Northern California side of the map is equally bereft of highways. Particularly striking is the fact that highways through the major mountain passes (Grapevine, Cajon, Donner, Shasta) would be horror stories today! Today, they'd hardly be considered decent backroads, let alone a major thoroughfare! Many of these weren't much different from what Angeles Crest is today. Now THAT'S a scary thought!

Other oddities abound. Who knew there was a Pasadena-Rosemead Airport? In addition to El Monte Airport that is? How about Hughes Airport or Lockheed Air Terminal? Glendale's grand sounding Grand Central Air Terminal is also listed, but Van Nuys Airport is San Fernando Airport. Some of the basics we know today are listed: the Hollywood Bowl, Rose Bowl, and Griffith Park are there, but so is Wrigley Field!

What strikes me most about this map, is the change in the philosophy of our lives. Highways were meant then to connect towns. Not only that, but the towns then grew up around the highways. For instance, Colorado Blvd. is still the main street of Pasadena. It was also Route 66. The highway ran right down the main drag! Right through the center of town. You were supposed to drive through town. This, and the fact that there was open country side between towns enlivened only by lone gas stations, standing sentinel for needy travelers, gave you a sense of going somewhere. Each town was different, a distinct entity nothing like your town. Pasadena was a very different place than Monrovia or Glendora. The store fronts told you so. Rialto was a stop sign on Foothill Blvd, orange groves formed ranks of military precision, broken up by towering lines of eucalyptus trees, planted as wind breaks. Montebello was dairy farms, and Walt Disney was CRAZY building his amusement park in the middle of the citrus groves that surrounded Anaheim. An item NOT located on the map.


Today, we make a huge deal about Being Connected. Facebook, Twitter, the Internet in general have indeed made the world smaller. I can keep in touch with people around the world, many of whom I've never met face to face. And there's the rub. Are we really connected? Have we, like our highways found life easier if we bypass the main street? To no longer drive through towns, but instead around them? Is being electronically attached by the umbilical internet replace actual face to face human contact? Internet scams abound because you can't look the perpetrator in the eye and see that he's not a Nigerian Prince with a fortune to give away or a politician who is NEVER going to raise our taxes. We can post snapshots on facebook and "see" each other, we can butcher the written word with the Newspeak of Twitter and we do not have to face the uncomfortable reality of dealing face to face in real life with those we can so easily insult, accuse, argue with, or defame in the virtual realm. Facile emoticons have replaced real emotions. Screen names have replaced our true identities and we are petrified that those identities will be stolen.

Isaac Azimov, in The Naked Sun, wrote of a society where people were revolted by the actual physical presence of another human being. Computerized robots comprised the servant class. The ultimate individuality had been achieved. Total non-involvement with others, a completely self absorbed society that had grown stagnate with the atrophying of human contact. He wrote it in the 1950s, about the same time this map was published. About the time we were on the verge of bypassing Main Street so we could hurry to Some Place Else, avoiding the inconvenient and interesting along the way.


This piece was written and submitted by a Jalopnik reader and may not express views held by Jalopnik or its staff. But maybe they will become our views. It all depends on whether or not this person wins by whit of your eyeballs in our reality show, "Who Wants to be America's Next Top Car Blogger?"

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You can go back so far or write about something so narrow of field that you risk losing your audience. If I start talking about 'S&H Green Stamps' a large percentage of the Jalops out there are collectively saying, "What the...". Still interesting though. Good work.