Picking up free maps along the way, Noel Levy built a collection - and a business - from the vacation pit stops of his Baby Boomer childhood.

January 17, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When Noel Levy was a lad back in the early '60s, the highways of Texas offered little in the way of amusement. His family would cruise out of Amarillo on an empty blacktop bound for Houston, Dallas or, even further away, Minnesota or Connecticut, numbing journeys in which a bathroom break might be the highlight of the day.

So, Levy would make the most of every stop, stepping into the spartan office of some Esso or Sinclair station, gas fumes heavy in the air, to search for free road maps. He'd pluck them from countertops and spindly metal racks, a handful at a time, unfolding them in the back seat to plunge into a world of crooked roads, lost rivers and towns with funny names. A few hundred miles later, when the family stopped again, he'd grab more while his dad threw the first batch in the trash.

Nowadays, somewhere just beyond the nexus of Americana, kitsch and the Internet, Levy is making his old habit pay off, e-peddling an inventory of 12,000 maps to a growing number of collectors who, like him, never lost their fascination for these onetime giveaways of the open road.

Levy, 46, readily concedes that the road map is an odd choice as a collector's item. What could be more worthless than an outdated map, especially when it was free to begin with and they were all made in the 20th century?

"I think you're talking about a pretty new hobby," he says, after spreading a pile of maps across the kitchen table in his Owings Mills home. "These are a real piece of history. It's something from a period of time that people actually used. They were never intended to be a collectible, but now they are."

Besides, if something as useless as a Beanie Baby can double in value in a matter of weeks, what's so bad about paying $8.95 for a 1955 official Maryland State Road map with Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin's picture on the cover? Better still, spend $6.95 to get the 1968 version with, drum roll, Gov. Spiro T. Agnew's photo. And lest you think Levy is selling out his passion by offering such items, he has set aside an additional 25,000 maps for himself.

"My collection is not for sale," he says firmly. "My collection will be buried with me."

Road maps weren't even around to collect until 1900, according to American Heritage magazine, which lists a series of pocket maps by George Walker of Boston as the first of the breed. They now reside in the map collection of the New York Public Library.

But just about all the early maps and "road guides" - detailed descriptions of specific routes that sometimes included photos of key landmarks or junctions - suffered from a key lack of information. No one had yet bothered to name or number the nation's highways.

American Heritage credits Rand McNally map draftsman John Brink with solving this problem in 1916 by suggesting that the company post its own numbered signs on the roads it mapped. This earned him a promotion to chief of the company's Blazed Trails Department, and he'd hammer in hundreds of signs himself during vacations, marking the road from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Cincinnati in 1918.

By then, more than 2 million cars were registered nationwide, and the Gulf Refining Co. was already giving away maps by the million as a promotional gimmick. Other oil companies soon followed suit, with state governments and auto associations joining in.

Boom in maps

From those early days onward you can roughly chart the state of the nation's love affair with the automobile by looking at road maps, particularly those offered by the oil companies. At least, that's what Douglas A. Yorke Jr. believes.

Yorke, 49, co-author of the 1996 book, "Hitting the Road: The Art of the American Road Map," says the maps of the teens and '20s were directed toward "communicating the joy of motoring, just trying to get people to use their cars. ... But I think most people accept the '30s as the era when the companies really hit their marketing stride."

The '30s were an age of colorful maps, when the covers often filled three folded panels, creating a 9-by-12-inch canvas. Yorke, who when he isn't collecting maps is a Wall Street executive, says his all-time favorite cover is on a 1932 map from an oil company called Diamond. It shows a family at a campfire, coffee pot on the boil, the light of the flames flickering on darkened stones. Their car is parked nearby. "It's really an image that says get up out of your easy chair and go out on the open road," he says.

Then came World War II. Levy has a Washington map from the period marking the German embassy with a tiny swastika flag.

The postwar period brought plenty of "America the Beautiful" themes, grand sweeping landscapes and happy families, showing off what we'd just fought for. That was followed in the '60s by the era of the interstates, Yorke says, with covers depicting "endless ribbons of highway, abstract images of cloverleafs."

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