It’s no secret that I’m a fan of transportation maps, especially those published during the first half of the 20th century. Such a short period of time saw greater changes to human mobility than any other span in history. The widespread adoption of the airplane and automobile allowed for an entirely new traveling and tourism experience – one that often required assistance in the form of guidebooks and maps.

The first several decades of the 20th century saw a myriad of publications related to automobile travel. Examples from the author’s collection.

One of my favorites is a series of Road and Surface Guides created by Howard F. Hobbs and published in Akron, Ohio by the Mohawk Rubber Company from 1922 to c. 1933. Hobbs pioneered the inventive design but needed a financial partner to make the guides affordable. Mohawk was operating in a crowded field of local competitors that included B.F. Goodrich (who also issued maps and guidebooks), Firestone, and Goodyear. They hoped to stand out by partnering with Hobbs and distributing a novel form of travelogue that incorporated numerous different elements useful in travel planning and likely familiar to most motorists.

Various covers from the Hobbs Grade and Surface Guides, dated 1922 – 1929.
The introduction to a 1929 edition that outlines the basis for the partnership between Hobbs and Mohawk.
The Key for Use that shows the numerous symbols and abbreviations used throughout each guide. “The more red the better the road.”

Each guidebook covers the route of a different prominent auto trail in the United States, anchored at either end by one or more major urban centers. At least 25 different examples were printed across numerous editions (revised annually), providing an in-depth overview of how these early highways developed. Over half are dedicated primarily to routes running west of the Mississippi River, though the majority of the paved roads could be found in New England during the 1920s.

A list of twenty-five separate routes is outlined in the 1929 edition of the Chicago-New York guide.

Instructions for use and a brief description of the route are followed by around 20-30 pages. Each sheet presents a segment of the trail and shows a detailed elevation diagram, a summary of the landscape, recommended facilities, a strip map, and a text itinerary.

Approximately 104 miles of road between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois shown in the 1923 edition of the Colorado-Chicago Route.

Though none of these elements were necessarily original (written travel logs date back to the Middle Ages; both cyclists and railroads were keenly interested in in elevation), the Mohawk-Hobbs Grade Surface Guide was a ‘Revelation in Road Guides’ for how it synthesized all the information on one page.

Detail from the left page showing what would eventually become the start of Route 66. Note the variety of surfaces identified under the profile chart. Recommended hotels include The Drake, “one of the finest in the world”, and still in operation today.
Elevation diagram from the 1926 edition of the Yellowstone Trail, showing a radically different sort of travel experience across the Continental Divide and through Bozeman Pass. Tire chains are recommended for approximately 50 of the 136.5 mile route.
The corresponding travel log for the road between Butte and Livingstone, MT. Note the mention of the 1925 earthquake in Three Forks and the racist description of Bozeman’s Main Cafe, which “employs white help.”

Occassional “Intimate Notes” provide interesting insight into local features and possibly reflect personal observations of the author. Advertisments for the Mohawk Rubber Company are also sometimes included, hoping to boost sales for products like Mohawk Flat Tread Cord Tires. The bottom of each page lists a helpful tip or clarification.

A variety of adverstisements for Mohawk Rubber Company – For the smartest cars and today’s traffic conditions.

At the time the Hobbs-Mohawk Guides were published, automobile usage was skyrocketing across America, though the road network remained a patchwork of dirt, gravel, brick, macadam, asphalt, and concrete. Weather was a primary concern for motorists, as surface conditions could change drastically during the rain. The frequent maintenance required for most vehicles made garages and mechanics a necessity on any long trip. Gasoline availability was a critical concern, just as it remains today.

Statistics provided by the Federal Highway Administration.

Other motorists’ amenities were relatively limited. Restaurants were sparse and hotels operated primarily in urban centers and could be quite expensive. Outdoor campsites were the most popular form of overnight accommodation. Characteristics of these ‘motor camps’ varied greatly from place to place and the guides give a great deal of attention to their location and quality. Some of these facilities even included cabins available for rent – predecessors to the motels that would become popular during the 1930s and later.

c. 1923 photograph of tent camping near Yellowstone National Park. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The wealth of data presented on each page reflects and highlights these conditions. The road is represented in both form and function, allowing the intrepid driver to plan for almost any circumstance in short or long distance travel.

1922 edition of the (mostly dirt) Lincoln Highway between Cheyenne, WY and Kimball, NE. The Intimate Notes reference the former city’s Frontier Days Celebration, an event that began in 1897 still takes place annually.

Distances, terrain, and infrastructure are covered in great detail, though limited to the scope of linear travel between two points along a fixed route. Additional relevant information is provided on major cities, prominent attractions (notably National Parks), and interesting excursions, where applicable. Though the maps, charts, and text appear authoritative, regularly updating the guides would have been a painstaking effort.

“Chicago Comment” from the 1926 edition of the Yellowstone Highway. Hotels, restaurants, garages, attractions, and motor camps are listed, in addition to Mohawk Dealers.
“Optional Routes and Side Trips” along the route of the Pacific Coast Highway (1926).

Accuracy was critical, especially from Mohawk’s perspective, and maintaining the guides with up-to-date information was undoubtedly difficult for Hobbs and his team (later guides are credited to different authors). Based on the language used in the introduction, it’s likely a combination of personal surveys and exhaustive correspondence was used to obtain the necessary data.

Forward to the 1923 Colorado-Chicago route in which Hobbs claims to have “a long and varied touring experience through every state.”

Input from local Chambers of Commerce, Highway Associations, and State Highway Departments (just beginning to develop) would have been critical. Another vital source was through user submissions. At least one early edition include a solicitation for any necessary corrections and several examples include a questionnaire in which such information can be transmitted. Payment was remitted in the form of coupons toward Mohawk products!

Questionnaire and corresponding rewards from the 1922 edition covering the Lincoln Highway.

Using these sources, the Mohawk Tourist Service Department was able to regularly update the suggested routes, road conditions, and recommended stops across each edition of the Surface Guide. One major improvement was the incorporation of numbered routes as they began to replace named auto trails. Wisconsin was the first state to embrace the new method in 1918. The entire nation followed suit in 1926 with the adoption of the U.S. Numbered Highway System.

United States System of Highways… issued in 1926 by the American Association of State Highway Officials. One of the first maps to show the new U.S. Numbered Highway System. Image courtesy of University of North Texas Library via Wikimedia.

Interestingly, the titles of the guides rarely changed, even as the marked trails were replaced entirely with numbered highways. Only references on the pages were updated.

A few other modest changes took place over the course of the publication history. Prices increased from 15 to 20 cents, the strip maps were improved, the elevation charts were redesigned, and a system of point rankings was adopted for the recommendations. 

An earlier (1922) version of the profile and surface chart that omits numbered routes and presents the red line along the top of the diagram.
Section of road between Syracuse and Albany from the 1926 Chicago-New York Guide. Note the ongoing construction of U.S. Highway 20, following the course of the historic Cherry Valley Turnpike.

The last page/back panel of each guide is likely most familiar to a modern audience. It shows a map of the regional road system, with the entire length of the respective highway highlighted in red. The inclusion is notable. As the nation’s roads developed and expanded, a distinct cartographic transition took place in which ‘network’ maps replaced earlier strip-style route maps, eventually evolving into the ubiquitous oil maps of the 1950s and later. The Hobbs Grade and Surface Guides are excellent examples of this progression, incorporating earlier travel elements such as the route log and elevation diagram while recognizing the utility of presenting ‘the bigger picture’ made possible by a network map.

Trio of network maps found on the Mohawk-Hobbs Guides that show regional road systems, though in much less detail.

Despite the originality of issuing a regularly updated assembly of visual and textual road data, the Mohawk-Hobbs Surface Guides eventually fell out of publication by the early 1930s. Later editions were even sponsored by Mohawk’s rival, B.F. Goodrich! It appears that by 1933, Hobbs sold the rights to his guide to the H.M. Gousha Company, eventually leading to a falling out and lawsuit.

Opening page of the 1932 edition of the Lincoln Highway Guide, published by B.F. Goodrich. Image courtesey of The Ohio Lincoln Highway League.

A variety of factors likely contributed to phasing out the guides, apart from the litigation between Hobbs and Gousha. It’s possible the costs and efforts required to obtain accurate information were just too great (especially during the Great Depression), changing travel habits made simpler network maps preferable to motorists, or the utility of such minutiae as elevation diminished as vehicles became more powerful and roads improved.

In any case, the relatively short run of around 11 years provides a fascinating insight into how early auto trails rapidly evolved into a system of national highways after the end of World War I. The network of connected interstate roads constructed during the 1920s and 1930s liberated the average American traveler from the restrictions of railway timetables and ushered in a new period of more democratic motor tourism. 

General Map of Transcontinental Routes with Principal Connections, c. 1918 by the American Automobile Association. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“The road map and the highway space it represented gave driving Americans the tools to explore the national territory in numbers and over distances without parallel in any other nation’s experience. It widened the horizons of average Americans by leading them to and through radically different physical and cultural landscapes from those they knew at home…The automobile journey, guided by the road map, became for many Americans a means of discovering a common national geography, history, and culture.”

[Akerman p. 153]

Sources/Further Reading

  • Akerman, J. (2006) “Twentieth-Century American Road Maps and the Making of a National Motorized Space,” in J. Akerman (ed.) Cartographies of travel and Navigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Guinn, Jeff. “The Vagabonds.” The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, 2019.
  • Harmon, David L. (2001). “American camp culture: A history of recreational vehicle development and leisure camping in the United States, 1890-1960.” Dissertation.