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Project: 1947 Map of Interstate Highways, Digital Recreation

1947 Interstates Map: Digital Recreation

Prints for sale from $27

Having found and digitally restored the fantastic 1926 map of the U.S. Highway system,  I started to look around to see if I could find a similar map from the advent of the newer Interstate Highway network. However, all my usual sources (the Wikimedia Commons, the Library of Congress and other online research libraries) came up with either nothing or only low resolution scans — certainly nothing suitable for reproduction.

So, what’s a map-obsessed graphic designer to do in this situation? Why, redraw the whole thing faithfully from scratch in Adobe Illustrator, of course!

Getting started, I was very fortunate to have some great assistance via Twitter that helped me on my way. Firstly, big thanks to Eric Fischer, who kindly uploaded a decent resolution scan of the 1947 Interstate Highways planning map to Flickr for me. The image isn’t perfect by any means, being spliced together from two separate scans of photocopies from a library book, but was more than good enough to act as a template for this.

Then, Brad Mohr pointed out that the strangely-regular-but-not-quite-typeset labels on the map looked like they’d been made with a  Kueffel + Esser Leroy lettering scriber and templates, which was a huge breakthrough for matching the map’s aesthetics. A quick search on MyFonts revealed Planscribe NF, an almost perfect match for the labels (based as it is off those original K+E templates).

After that, it was just a matter of carefully replicating the map. I tried to do much of the work manually — without resorting to defaults in Illustrator — in an attempt to capture the spirit of the original as much as possible. This meant that I manually letterspaced all the labels to match the (often idiosyncratic) spacing of the original, and drew the dashed state border lines without using Illustrator’s automatic dashes function at all. This allowed me to see where the original designer had made decisions on where to shorten or lengthen dashes to fit around labels or add definition to where multiple states abut. All up, this recreation probably took me about 15-20 hours to complete, and most of that was drawing fiddly coastline. The only change I made from the original map was to correct the spelling of Coeur d’Alene in Idaho.

If anything, my version is just a little too perfect, as the modern tools at my disposal make everything so easy. If I want to draw a 3-point wide line for one of the proposed highway routes, I just set the Pen Tool up in Illustrator, and away I go, drawing bezier curves to my heart’s content. I can continue to tweak and edit my path long after I’ve initially drawn it to make things perfect. So easy. Meanwhile, the original cartographer almost certainly used a ruling pen (which is basically a set of calipers with ink manually inserted between the two blades, held there by surface tension alone — every bit as difficult to use as it sounds) and a set of good old french curves to draw his route lines. One mistake, and the whole map could be ruined.

Even the K+E lettering scriber — an amazing tool in its day — seems ridiculously awkward and clumsy today. Tracing letterforms one by one, moving the whole set up after each letter, filling the tiny ink reservoir again and again, meticulously cleaning it all up after you’ve finished… absurd. Recreating this map has definitely given me a greater appreciation of the skills and patience that cartographers of the day possessed… and thankfulness that I live in a digital age with tools that don’t need cleaning fluid applied after each use.

This map was so good, however, that when they needed a map in 1957 to show how the Interstates would be numbered, they just dusted this one off and plopped the route numbers on top, even though some of the routes had been modified in the intervening decade.

1957 Numbered Interstates Map

View a large preview of the map here


  1. larry derleth

    hi i am looking for a u s a road map for 1947 that shows route 66 and all the towns it through do you know of one please let me know

  2. Pingback: Project: Prototype U.S. Highways Shield (1926), Digital Recreation | Cameron Booth

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