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Navigating the Past

I am a huge nerd. Always have been. I wear the badge proudly. I watch Jeopardy, I enjoy trivia more than most and I retain useless knowledge like no other. So consider this your nerd alert. This post takes a nerdy deep dive on something I found in a box lot at an auction.

What are box lots, you may ask? Sometimes I assume people just know the terminology of an auction. But just last week, I met a woman that had never been to one. So, box lots are cardboard boxes (or sometimes plastic totes) that have random group of items that have been bundled together and sold as one unit. The items in a box lot may be unrelated or have a common theme, but they are not typically individually catalogued or described.

photo of box lots at an auction

I like to get to an auction early and dig through the box lots. You never know what you will find! This weekend, I bought a box of books. I bought it because there was a novel by James Michener in the box. My Godson is a fan so I pick them up when I can. The Michener book was a first edition with the jacket cover. I only paid $2 for the entire box. Score! But I was really fascinated by another book in the box—a 1920 edition of the Official Automobile Blue Book. It was leather bound and the pages were almost like the consistency of tissue paper. It's the kind of old book that just feels good in your hand. As I was flipping through it, I realized I was reading Mapquest directions from over 100 years ago!

page from the Automobile Blue Book

Remember Mapquest? It seemed so innovative at the time. But they had THIS over 100 years ago. When I got home, I started doing a little research. This is where my neediness comes in. I love a good deep dive into something I have never seen before. So come along with me on my deep dive...

Navigating the Past: The 1920 Automobile Blue Book In an era when the automobile was still a novelty and long road trips were adventurous endeavors, finding your way across the vast expanse of America was no small feat. Enter the 1920 Automobile Blue Book, a publication that played a pivotal role in helping early motorists explore the open road. I found this book so interesting, I wanted to delve into the history of these invaluable guides and explore the significance of the 1920 edition published by the Automobile Blue Book Publishing Co.

The Birth of Automobile Blue Books Before the advent of GPS, smartphones, and even detailed road maps, early motorists had to rely on a patchwork of poorly marked roads and verbal directions. This lack of reliable navigation resources led to the emergence of the Automobile Blue Book series.

Cover of the Automobile Blue Book 1920

The Official Automobile Blue Book was founded by Charles Howard Gil­lette, a supplier of oil and grease business owner from Hartford, Connecticut. The first edition was published in 1901 by the Automobile Blue Book Publishing Co., a company founded by Albert S. Southwick and Joshua F. Tolman.

Photo of bookmark in Automobile Blue Book

The book I purchased came with a bookmark attached. It was an advertisement for Se-Ment-Ol Radiator Cement. I didn't do a deep dive on that product—I guess I will save that for another day!

Page from 1920 Automobile Blue Book

Page from 1920 Automobile Blue Book

These blue books were essentially detailed route guides designed to help automobile enthusiasts plan their journeys. They contained maps, directions, and information about road conditions, accommodations, fuel stops, and other essential travel details. The books were bound in blue covers, which is how they got their distinctive name. The books were offered in several volumes with different volumes covering specific areas of the country. This particular one covers Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

I really love the detail for the directions. Mileage down to the tenth of mile. Landmarks such as blacksmith shops, courthouses, churches or a brick schoolhouse. Amazing. That made me wonder who pulled all this information together? The routes used in the Blue Book were initially developed by amateur "pathfinders" who used their knowledge of local roads to compile the listed routes. Early pathfinders included bicyclists, and automobile clubs (AAA). By 1907 the Blue Book had its own professional pathfinders working in teams of two to create and update routes.

Hotel Advertising Page from 1920 Automobile Blue Book

The book is filled with amazing advertisements: hotels, tire companies, garages and restaurants.

Advertising page from Page from 1920 Automobile Blue Book

There is a group of color pages in the book promoting locations for National Touring. The ads in this section are just breath-taking. Can you imagine the trips this section inspired? I would love to go back in time and visit some of these locations as they were then.

The Significance of the 1920 Edition By the time the 1920 edition was published, the American automobile industry was booming, and more people were hitting the road in their Model Ts and other early automobiles. The 1920 Automobile Blue Book was a critical resource for these adventurers. It covered the United States and parts of Canada, providing detailed information about thousands of miles of roads and highways.

  1. Mapping the Landscape: The 1920 edition featured maps that were meticulously hand-drawn and marked with essential details such as road conditions, distances between towns, and notable landmarks. These maps were a lifeline for travelers navigating unfamiliar territories.

  2. Roadside Assistance: Unlike today's service stations and convenience stores, the 1920s lacked roadside amenities. The Blue Book included listings for essential services like gas stations, garages, hotels, and restaurants, making it easier for travelers to plan their stops and rest breaks.

  3. Regional Insights: In addition to route guidance, the book offered insights into the regions it covered. It shared historical anecdotes, local attractions, and even advice on handling specific terrains and weather conditions.

  4. An Evolving Resource: The 1920 edition was an evolution of its predecessors. With each new edition, the Blue Books incorporated feedback from travelers, updated road conditions, and expanded coverage to keep pace with the rapid development of the American road network.

Legacy and the End of an Era The 1920 Automobile Blue Book marked the peak of these iconic publications. Over the years, advancements in technology, including road signage and the availability of more detailed maps, gradually made the Blue Books less essential. On November 11, 1926, the newly established United States Numbered Highway System changed the way U.S. drivers navigate the country. Oil and gas companies began offering road maps in an effort to promote their businesses. The Blue Book was eventually replaced by these maps. The last edition was published in 1929, as the automobile navigation landscape continued to change.

While these publications have been largely replaced by modern GPS devices and digital mapping tools, they hold a special place in the history of American travel. They were instrumental in expanding new horizons for early motorists and fostering a sense of adventure on the open road.

The 1920 Automobile Blue Book published by the Automobile Blue Book Publishing Co. was a vital resource for early American motorists, offering guidance and insights that paved the way for countless road trips and adventures. These blue books were more than just navigational aids; they were a testament to the spirit of exploration and the boundless possibilities of the open road. Today, they serve as valuable relics of a bygone era, reminding us of the challenges and triumphs of those who first ventured out onto America's highways.

1920 Automobile Blue Book

This book will eventually make its way to one of my booths. I want to spend a little time with it and dream about what a road trip used to look like!

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1 Comment

Oct 09, 2023

I really enjoyed reading about this! You are an excellent writer. I think you would enjoy the book Her Father's Daughter by Gene Stratton Porter. Written in 1921, she drives an automobile all over coastal California which was then rural. I retraced her steps. I believe her Lilac Valley was near Malibu or Tuna Canyon. San Fernando Road is now Hwy 5. Her Multiflores Canyon is called Los Flores today. California was truly a beautiful dream 100 years ago. The book has a riveting storyline as well.

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