• Photo: iStockphoto: BrianAJackson

Here’s my calling card for map geekdom: I collect old road maps. For one, they’re cool artifacts, windows onto another time that’s vaguely familiar. For another, they are seductive, playing a role in how our communities took shape.

Here are a couple of off-beat gems from my collection. A 1954 Ontario Department of Highways map sports a delightful picture on the front of a happy family having lunch at a picnic table a few metres next to the highway. It has exhortations sure to be familiar to a modern-day Toronto Transit Commission rider: TAKE CARE NOT CHANCES and SLOW DOWN AFTER SUNDOWN and DO NOT THROW LIGHTED CIGARETTE OR CIGAR BUTTS FROM CAR WINDOWS.

A second map, published only a couple of years later by the same Department of Highways, is dominated by the image of a highway cloverleaf as a symbol of the future. We were definitely in a hurry to grow up.

In the eyes of some social commentators, the red and blue lines of highway maps convey ever so subliminally the vital arteries of the human body.

Some map historians will even argue that the stringing together of local roads on the map to form what looked like highways meant that actual roads had to be improved to match the map images. Road maps promoted the use of roads, they say, making it necessary to build ever more roads.

Consider the example of the famed Trans-Canada Highway, which appeared on maps long before the route was completed around the north shore of Lake Superior. A map produced in 1945, for example, shows the highway, complete with the link over the top of Superior. It was only in 1949, when the federal government passed the Trans-Canada Highway Act, that construction actually began, and not until 1962 that the east-west highway was officially opened.

The most prolific purveyors of road maps were oil and automobile interests or commercial map publishers. I’ve got a 1939 Shell map of Quebec and the Maritime provinces that announces the speed limit in New Brunswick and P.E.I. as “reasonable and proper”; the Shell logo appears 22 times, including within a bull’s eye in the middle of the compass rose.

These commercial interests were betting that auto touring would become a mass phenomenon. Good bet, guys.