At 90, the Rand McNally atlas is as iconic as the American road

After 90 years, the Rand McNally Road Atlas remains a staple for travelers Photo: PR Newswire

CONYERS, Georgia, May 23, 2013 – By 1924, the automobile craze was in full swing, and the open roads were calling motorists.

Americans drove Ford Model T vehicles and paid 21 cents per gallon for gas, but they needed advice about how to travel from Point A to Point B. So, in 1924 – when Calvin Coolidge was in The White House – Rand McNally published the “Rand McNally Auto Chum,” the first edition of its now famous Rand McNally Road Atlas.

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The guide included concrete-covered roads in the nation’s 48 states, as Alaska and Hawaii weren’t even states. Maps were printed in two colors – dark blue and red; a color version of the book didn’t appear until 1960.

In that inaugural edition, there was no index of cities in the back of the atlas and interstates did not then exist, but roads named Roosevelt Highway, Lincoln Highway and Dixie Highway were the major thoroughfares for motorists. With the introduction of the new atlas, motorists hungry to take in the open roads had a trusted guide.

By the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, the nation’s roads were unreliable, turning to mud when it rained and kicking up dust during times of drought. But, the Good Roads Movement that launched in the late 1870s advocated for improved roads.

That position was propelled into the national spotlight on July 11, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The first federal highway funding legislation put in place a mechanism for funding road construction.

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In turn, the 1920s became the “golden age” of road building. Thousands of miles of roads were completed during the decade, and Rand McNally seized on the opportunity.

The maps included in that 1924 atlas were organized geographically, starting with Maine and working westward. The original atlas only included as points of interest on the maps the 17 national parks.

Interestingly, the first edition of the atlas predates U.S. Route 66, arguably the country’s most famous road. That highway wasn’t commissioned until Nov. 11, 1926 (and paving for the 2,448-mile long road was completed in 1937).

Ninety years later, the Rand McNally Road Atlas remains a staple for travelers. Its history follows that of arguably the most iconic American symbol of all: the open road.

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While the construction of roads evolved over the last nine decades, so too did the atlas. Starting with the 2014 atlas, Rand McNally is offering the book as an e-book for the iPad and the Nook.

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Todd DeFeo

Todd DeFeo jouned The Washington Times Communities in May 2012. He covers travel and Georgia. A marketing professional who never gave up his award-winning journalistic ways, DeFeo revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He also serves as editor of The Travel Trolley.


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