Mapmakers Used to Chart U.S. Roads by Hand—Here’s How

Making road maps might seem like a mundane or even obsolete task today, but this 1940 video portrays it as a heroic endeavor. The gung-ho narrator describes how draftsmen continuously updated maps based on reports from “road scouts” who drove the country’s fast-expanding road network and sent back details on route changes: “It’s swell teamwork on the part of everyone that gets speedy, accurate information on modern road maps!”

The video, from the Prelinger Archive, was made by the Detroit-based Jam Handy Organization, which produced educational and promotional videos for the American automobile industry from the 1930s through the 60s.

The full video begins with a brief history of cartography. “Mapmaking in the olden days was like painting a masterpiece,” the narrator says as the video shows a man in period dress (or at least a very large collar) intently working on a map. “Mapmaking today has the speed of our modern streamlined methods,” the narrator says with authority, as the camera cuts to a clattering printing press churning out sheet maps.

The clip above shows how draftsmen used giant transparency sheets laid over the previous edition of the map to update it with new roads or road closures. “But wait a minute! How does the draftsmen know all this?” the narrator asks. “It’s a cinch he can’t walk every mile of road in the United States.” The video then follows two road scouts as they drive around Death Valley, California on a blazing hot day, taking measurements of a new road under construction. “Being a road scout is no soft snap!“ quips the narrator.

Keeping road maps up to date was indeed important work in mid-century America. The country’s road network was growing but had yet to be unified by the interstate highway system. As the camera pans over the then-new Pennsylvania Turnpike, the narrator sums it up: “Modern maps [are] taking motorists where they want to go, when they want to go, quickly, comfortably, and safely.”

If you’re interested in road maps, check out our previous posts about a man who collected more than 12,000 of them and on a 1916 road guide published in the early days of automobile travel.

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