(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #98, November 2012)
If you live in the northeast United States and want to get some sun, what route would you drive from Philadelphia, PA to Palm Beach, FL? Today you would likely hop on I-95 and let your GPS guide you to your destination. But how did travelers find the best route for this trip in, let’s say, 1911? AAA couldn’t issue any TripTiks back then but they did officially endorse the Automobile Blue Book.
The Blue Book was recognized as the standard automobile guide of the United States beginning in 1900. There were multiple volumes issued each year; one each covering a wide range of area including New York & Canada, New England, NJ/PA and the Southeast, The Midwest and finally the Western States. These guides offered turn-by-turn instructions with mileages at each direction. In addition to driving directions, the guide also included an abstract of automobile laws, service station listings, and advertisements for nearby restaurants and hotels. The use of this book made it “impossible for the tourist using a Blue Book to go astray.”
Not surprisingly, pages in Blue Books were blue and featured fold-out maps and a leather cover for durability while being used on the road. Business groups like New York’s Empire Tour Association (hotel owners) attempted to capitalize on the success of the Blue Book by inserting maps that featured bonus tours and, of course, every Association member hotel along or near the route.
Accident report sheets can also be found in some Blue Books. These sheets were used to document every detail of an accident and were also used as an advertisement for insurance companies. Since the sheets aren’t found in every issue of the Blue Book we can only assume that they were thrown out or used.
In the earliest Blue Books, turn-by-turn instructions were often somewhat vague. One
direction from a 1906 New England volume reads “Ascend valley of creek, continue past church (2,020 feet elevation); at small blue house one mile beyond take left fork”. I’ve read more than one account where houses where described in the Blue Books as one color and motorists found them a different color – remember, in 1906 people were still struggling to accept the automobile and not necessarily happy to assist motorists!
Just two decades later route information was much more precise thanks, in large part, to the evolution of U.S. and state highways. Volumes from 1927 still contained mileage information and turn-by-turn guidance but the 1928 volumes were essentially books of maps with very detailed descriptions of towns. Route instructions were just a few short paragraphs; just enough to get the motorist interested and engaged.
1928 was the last year for the Automobile Blue Book. By this time road maps were readily available and more detailed guides could be found for individual states and regions. While the Blue Book was originally endorsed by the American Automobile Association, AAA was producing their own guides by the early 1930s.
GPS may be easy but it sure would be fun to hop in an antique car and try to retrace a route by using one of the old Automobile Blue Books. As for that original route in question; using the 1911 Blue Book, the route suggested for the trip was: Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington DC –Richmond – Henderson – Raleigh – Pinehurst – Cheraw – Camden – Augusta – Savannah – Brunswick – Jacksonville – Palm Beach. Averaging 10 MPH and driving 8 hours a day, the travelers could expect to arrive in Palm Beach after 14 days. Can you beat that?