The prototypical traveling salesman carried among other necessaries a Thomas Brothers Street Guide for the area he (in those days, usually a he) was working. A Thomas Guide was usually within easy reach on the front seat of the car. The guides, with their foldout maps and street indexes were especially popular in California and other western states. Businesses, government agencies, law enforcement and emergency responders used Thomas maps, including the company’s large wall maps.

Cartographer George Coupland Thomas and his two brothers founded the company in 1915. Early maps were detailed block grids with bird’s-eye three-dimensional drawings of major buildings. As the business expanded, the Thomas Company moved its headquarters from Oakland to Los Angeles.

George Thomas died in 1955. The family’s lawyer, and brother of a former Oakland mayor, purchased the company. Business continued to grow and in 1970 the company moved into a shiny new building in Irvine, south of L.A.

Much of my working life involved travel. Much of that travel was by automobile. Over time, I collected a stack of highway and city-street maps from AAA. This collection of paper atlases was the subject of ridicule from younger – i.e. millennial – fellow employees. They knew only GPS maps on their smartphones. To find a destination, they punch in an address and follow the directions. (Google is correct 89 percent of the time.) Upon arrival, they know where they are… except they don’t know where they are in relation to anything else.

Thomas Brothers tried to keep up with the new digital age. Their digital software innovations are still used today. But they took on oppressive debt in the effort. That debt and declining demand for paper maps led to a buyout of the company by Rand McNally in 1999. In 2003, the company let go most of its cartographers and outsourced the work to India. They closed their retail stores and eventually shuttered their Irvine headquarters.

Today Rand McNally purchases its map data and updates from the giant data companies.

What happens if Google or other major provider decides to get out of the map business? (Oh, they’ll still have maps for themselves; they’ll still be tracking where you’ve been.) What happens if a government shutdown results in satellite data no longer being transmitted to our smartphones?

Studies have demonstrated that users of paper maps have greater geographical skill than those who don’t. This doesn’t mean that those who still use paper don’t also employ digital maps as well; they do. In general though, readers, not just map readers, who prefer paper have better cognitive skills than those who read only on a screen.

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  1. When my folks traveled by car in the late forties and through the fifties they were always accompanied by a glove box full of maps most of which were picked up for free off a rack out front of a gas station’s office. You could transverse the U.S. and always know what routes to take and plan accordingly. Triple A would give you maps (if you were a member) which would show the locations of motels and hotels. Traveling by car was fun in those days and I’d have my nose plastered against the passenger window for endless miles.

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