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Shelf Life

“Shelf Life” is a podcast about the humanities–and the humans behind them. Each episode features a new conversation with the Newberry staff, fellows, and other readers who bring the Newberry’s world-famous collection to life.

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The Road in American Culture

From Kerouac’s On the Road to car commercials starring Matthew McConaughey, driving has been portrayed again and again as a quintessentially American act, embodying principles of individual freedom and self-reliance. When did this idea emerge, and how did road maps of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries spread it?

The Newberry’s curator of maps, Jim Akerman, discusses the rhetoric surrounding automobiles at the turn of the twentieth century, how road maps promoted driving differently as the American highway system expanded, and whether or not Google Maps is negating the freedom that cars have been promising us from the very beginning.

The Road in American Culture by Shelf Life, from the Newberry Library

Show Notes

2:07 – Where the Newberry’s extensive collection of road maps fits within its larger collection of maps.

5:26 – Jim discusses his childhood fascination with road maps.

8:58 – Bicycle clubs become the early advocates for better roads in the United States.

12:36 – The transition from bicycle maps to road maps in the early twentieth century. Bicyclists see driving as a further realization of the freedom offered by bicycles.


According to Curator of Maps Jim Akerman, twentieth-century road maps created a “national motorized space” where driving and patriotism converged.

17:19 – Early on, motoring is categorized as a sport–and a particularly difficult one given the crudeness of the roads at the time.

19:02 – Road maps characterize driving as “trail blazing” or “path finding,” making drivers the heirs of the American frontier.

21:59 – How do road maps change as the American highway system grows and becomes safer?

28:47 – “Motoring is seen as a patriotic exercise.”

31:13 – “Americans embrace the notion of the automobile as freedom.”

32:24 – How does Jim feel about Google Maps? Is he stubbornly holding onto his road maps?

Related Resources

Mapping Movement digital resource

Research guide to the Newberry’s special map collections and strengths

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