This post was written by Business Reference librarian Angel Vu.
The Library of Congress has many resources you can use for economic and business history research. Directories tend to be a popular resource for researchers attempting to track down an old business. Travel guides, while more selective in the businesses they may list, are another useful – and unexpected – source of information for researchers.
Recently, I came across the Oklahoma Travelers Guide, an inconspicuous piece published in 1915 by the Mid-Continent Auto Guide Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The book is only about 16 cm, and comes with a folding road map – published by permission of the Oklahoma Geological Survey – tucked in between the last page and the end cover. While the publication is primarily black and white, roads on the map are marked in red. Content is in straight-forward list format naming the cities in alphabetical order, their population, and the businesses within cities. There are few expanded advertisements and accompanying illustrations. This contrasts with modern travel guides, which tend to be more colorful, include brief descriptions of businesses, and can include planned itineraries.
As laid out in the Foreword (p.3), the Oklahoma Travelers Guide had two goals. The first goal of the publication was to provide accurate routes for tourists (to be nonetheless used) with the following disclaimer:
Perfection in this first issue is not claimed, nor will any-one who knows the difficulties encountered in selecting the best routes to smaller towns, expect it. Most of the roads were covered in automobiles, and Jupiter Pluvious [sic] alone is to blame where this achievement became impossible.
And its second purpose is to:
… acquaint tourists with automobile service which may be expected in the different parts of the state.
While the publishers’ intended mission in 1915 was simple, such publications – for the historian – are fascinating snapshots of the state’s population, businesses, and economy at the time. For example, almost every town from Ada to Yukon had a “Drug Store,” a “Druggist,” or a “Pharmacy” such as: Ramsey Drug Company, P.J. Monk Druggist, and Diamond Pharmacy. Several cities list cigar businesses. Oklahoma City, population, 83,559, had three cigar businesses including: Kingkade Cigar Stand, Skirvin Hotel Cigar Stand, and C.W. Cigar Company. Tulsa, with only 28,800 people, had five cigar businesses listed including: Hotel Tulsa Cigar Stand, Third Street Cigar Stand, Smokewell Cigar Co., Empress Cigar Store, and Jacobus Cigar Store.
This publication provides a glimpse at how travel and tourism in America has evolved from a pastime of the leisure class – with the assistance of automobiles – to something more adventurous and democratized.
When used along with other resources such as historical images, the 1892 Oklahoma state map, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, and the 1915 road map provided in the Oklahoma Travelers Guide, we can get a better idea of Oklahoma’s evolving geographical, economic, and social landscape.
In addition, don’t forget that a state’s historical society and archives are excellent resources for tracking down older local businesses. Each state has requirements for doing business within the state, and records of licenses and permits can be found in the state’s archives. So, in your quest to track down an old family business; or, if you are a historian seeking to better understand the economic landscape of a region, think about unexpected resources – consider the travel guide. You never know what you will find.
For further reading on Oklahoma’s economic history, Oklahoma’s automobile industry, auto tourism or the tourism industry in America, the following subject headings can help you find more publications on these topics:
Automobile travel–West (U.S.)–History.
Automobile industry and trade–United States–History–20th century.
Local transit–United States–History–20th century.
Oklahoma–Economic conditions–20th century.
Transportation, Automotive–United States–History–20th century.
United States–Travel–Economic aspects–Periodicals.