Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
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See the schedule at the bottom of
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and perspective to the mix!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Maps of 66: How Road Maps Built an American Legend

Firstly, I would like to apologize for my late post as I am presenting as part of the West panel and should have gotten this up last week.  
My entry here was intended to be a teaser of the online exhibit I will be presenting in November, but due to technical issues, the website remains incomplete.  That being the case, here’s the textual preview:
Route 66 has become a deep-seated part of American pop-culture, even for those born after the road’s decommissioning. Generations of travelers, including many who have never traveled down its fabled pavement, have adopted it as the icon of the American road trip--a rite of passage that lives on today, even in the face of affordable flights, superhighways and skyrocketing gas prices.  
But how did this come to pass?  A certain amount of mythology can be attributed to figures like John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and Jack Kerouac, but there is another cultural avenue that deserves exploration for its role in the rise of popularity of Route 66.  
Road maps have done far more for popular culture than one would think, but because they were, for most of the twentieth century, the only way to navigate from one place to another they were a highly prominent part of American popular and vernacular culture.  What a road map’s publisher chose to feature was directly related to what was visited by travelers.  As a result, the now-iconic landmarks that lined Route 66 were there largely because someone decided that they deserved to make it--quite literally--onto the map.  
The allure of Route 66 did not come purely from the depictions of the road on maps--such a claim would be far too extreme to be accurate, but in order to understand the way in which the road’s popularity rose and fell in the mid-twentieth century, road maps must be taken into consideration as valuable pieces of ephemera that reveal far more than their authors likely imagined.  
I hope this peaks your interest and I look forward to sharing the full exhibit in November!     
Lucinda Hannington, University of Southern Maine

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