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Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” Leaves of Grass, 1856
Beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Americans took to the roads on bicycles in great numbers, but as few roads were well maintained, this kind of traveling was difficult, especially for long distances. Mud, poor signage, and a lack of amenities made for a less than easy biking experience (Yorke and Margolies 1996, 12). Yet the appeal of travel unfettered by a strict timetable–like those imposed by railroads–was great and the idea of setting out on the open road, despite the difficulties, could not be denied.
With the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908, automobile travel became a reality for many Americans. Early automobile travel in the United States was equally difficult as that faced by the bicyclists who preceded them. Roads were poorly maintained, gas stations were few, and there way little uniformity in the available maps and how roads were labeled, making navigation challenging. The first maps designed specifically for auto drivers were less maps as we know them today than itineraries consisting of a series of specific directions that included detailed, turn-by-turn directions for specific routes. Sponsored by oil companies, many were readily available at local gas stations and were conveniently small enough to fit into a pocket when folded. There were also more comprehensive touring guides produced by automobile clubs and agencies. Unlike today’s road atlases, these books were compilations of multiple trips and useful information.
Auto trail clubs formed as part of the emergent car culture in the early twentieth century. These clubs promoted cars and driving and the development of good roads that would allow cars to move easily from place to place. Regulation and standardization did not come easily or quickly, however. Wisconsin was the first state to mark numbered “state highways” in 1918 and other states followed suit not long after. Still, no federal numbering plan was put in place until 1925.