A Brief History of Rand McNally

From humble beginnings came America’s most recognized name in maps

1320051115randandmcnally.jpgWilliam Rand (L.), Andrew McNally (R.)

The year was 1856, the location: Chicago, economic capital of the American middle-west and burgeoning railroad hub.

William Rand (d. 1904), late of Boston, opened a print shop where “every description of printing, on the most advantageous terms” could be had. Soon he was joined by immigrant Irishman Andrew McNally (d. 1905) at the then-affluent sum of $9 a week, and together they set about to serve the printing needs of the business community of Chicago.

150 years later, Rand McNally is the most renowned and recognized name in American map publishing and offers travel products from traditional maps and atlases to computer navigation and truck driving management software.

Toddling Beginnings

Business for the partners began to take off when Rand was taken on by the Chicago Daily Press Tribune in 1859 to manage its printing shop. The publication, the precursor to today’s Chicago Tribune, also took McNally on as shop foreman. By 1868 the two did well enough that they were able to buy out the Tribune’s contracts and start their own enterprise, focusing on the needs on the expanding railways. This meant printing tickets and timetables amongst other things. Business boomed; by 1870 they expanded their offerings into business directories, railroad guides, and even a newspaper.

It took the great Chicago fire of 8-9 October 1871 to interrupt Rand and McNally’s upward trend. To save what could be saved, Rand managed to get two of the company’s ticket-printing machines away from their print shop, located at 148 West Lake Street, three miles north to McNally’s home. Once there they removed them to the sandy Lake Michigan shore, burying them there to protect them from the heat and the flying, burning debris. This desperation move saved the business, enabling the partners to hit the ground running a mere three days later in a rented office on Wabash Street.

Moving into Mapping

In 1872, Rand McNally published their first map, in the the December number of the Railway Guide. This was the catalyst that touched off a fairly rapid growth in map related and educational publishing, including the forerunner of today’s Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide.

1320051115rmnrrguide.jpgThe first Rand McNally map appeared in the December 1872 Railway Guide

After the death of McNally in 1905, ownership of the company (Rand having sold his interest in 1899) passed to his son, Frederick. It was his son, Andrew McNally II, that saw the future for Rand McNally’s maps–the motorist. For it was the photos taken on his honeymoon driver from Chicago to Milwaukee that provided the illustrations for what may have been the first modern travel guide–the Chicago-to-Miwaukee Photo-Auto Guide, published in 1907.

The Solution is the System

The continuing rise in popularity of the automobile created in increasing demand for road maps to serve the motorist and document the developing American road network. Not only were the Photo-Auto Guides proving popular but regular routes were being established.

A problem that began to emerge was how to represent these routes, typically given awkwardly-long names, on maps. Company lore holds that, after an in-house contest, the idea of a drafter named John Brink was put into play, identifying intercity routes by keying them to symbols. A further refinement of the system introduced numbers instead of geometric symbols, and this, debuted with the publication of an 1917 map of Peoria, Illinois, is considered a seminal event enroute to the creation of the modern system of numbering US and Interstate highways of which every motoring American is acquainted.

A Family business moves into the present

With the development of the American highway system and Rand McNally’s documentation of the same, it perhaps stands to reason that the logical extension of road map publishing and convenience to the motorist, the atlas. In 1934, the company produced its first Rand McNally Auto Chum, the precursor to the Rand McNally Road Atlas.

Revised yearly, the Road Atlas became one of the essentials to the motoring traveler, regularly cited as the best-selling annually published travel guide in the world, cementing the reputation that was developing from before the time that O. Henry noted in his short story “A Municipal Report”:

..it is a rash one who will lay his finger on the map and say: “In this town there can be no romance—what could happen here?” Yes, it is a bold and a rash deed to challenge in one sentence history, romance, and Rand and McNally.

Through the years, leadership of the company has stayed a family affair. In 1948, Andrew McNally III became president, overseeing the growth of the company into one of the largest commercial printers in the world, as well as the company’s move out if its crowded Chicago offices into its current home in Skokie, Illinois. In 1974 he was succeeded by Andrew McNally IV, who led the company into new marketing avenues (such at the Rand McNally Map and Travel Stores), software products (TripMakerâ„¢ and StreetFinderâ„¢), and onto the World Wide Web.

During the last decade of the 20th Century and the first of the 21st, Rand McNally extended its reach by acquiring other mapmakers. 1993 saw the addition of Allmaps Canada Ltd; 1995 saw the addition of the venerable Thomas Bros. Maps, and 2004 added Toronto’s Perly’s Maps to the constellation.

In 1997, the McNally family moved out of the map business, selling the company to a private investment group. The long view is still in place; the newest edition of the Road Atlas for 2006 integrates more with the web presence than ever, offering expanded travel information and updated road conditions accessible through codes printed in the Atlas itself.

Other notable and interesting milestones in company history include:

  • 1927: Charles Lindbergh navigates over land during his historic transatlantic flight with the help of Rand McNally railroad maps.
  • 1933: Cecil B. DeMille suggests that aspiring actress Helen Beck change her name, inspired by a Rand McNally world atlas. In time, Sally Rand would become world-famous for her “fan dance”.
  • 1947: Rand McNally publishes the book Kon-Tiki making Thor Heyerdahl a household name around the world.
  • 1953: Develops the first carbonless airline and railroad tickets.
  • 1995: Develops and patents EasyFinderâ„¢ laminated maps.
  • 2003: Time Magazine names randmcnally.com as one of its “50 Best Websites”.
  • 2006 Rand McNally celebrates its 150th year.

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