During the 19th century, cities usually had decent roads, but rural roads were often little more than muddy trails. Bicyclists and railroad companies began calling for good roads in the 1880s, but American road building really took off in the 20th century as a response to rising numbers of cars and trucks. Some of these new roads were private initiatives, such as the Lincoln Highway, but after 1916, federal law and government money fueled much of the countrys road building.
The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer, 1891
Pamphlets such as this one promoted support for good roads in the late 1800s. The League of American Wheelmen-an organization of bicyclists-distributed about 5 million tracts calling for road improvements.
Road Construction Tools
Road draggers, scrapers, and levelers were used to build, grade, and maintain rural dirt and gravel roads. As cars became a common sightand as they tore up road surfacingsroad construction changed. Builders began to use asphalt, concrete and other harder and more durable surfaces to withstand the speed and weight of cars.
Road scraper patent model
Dague road scrapper and leveller model
Western wheeled road scraper
Ball drag scraper patent model
Weber wheeled road scraper
Cement mixer model, spout side
Toy concrete mixer, 1920s
Warren Bitulithic Pavement marker from Fresno, California, 1910s-1920s
Roads that had been improved for bicycles in the 1890s were often ruined by automobile traffic, and dirt roads remained impassable for much of the year. Early carsparticularly the Ford Model T, which sat up highwere designed to cope with rural roads, but roads had to change to accommodate cars. In 1904 only one-sixth of rural public roads had any kind of surfacing. By 1935, more than a third of rural roads were surfaced, and many were paved with concrete and asphalt for motor traffic.
Washington-Richmond road, 1919
Washington-Richmond road, 1920
Washington-Richmond road, 1947
Created in 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association promoted the building of a paved highway from New York to California. Largely supported by donations from car-related businesses, the association marked out a route and funded sample stretches of pavement (seedling miles) to encourage local governments to build the rest. In 1928 the association, with the help of the Boy Scouts and concrete manufacturers, placed 3,000 of these markers along the route. The Lincoln Highway, Americas first transcontinental highway, was finally fully paved in the 1930s.
Lincoln Highway marker, 1928
Lincoln Highway Association plaque, about 1913
The Lincoln Highway Association gave members these plaques. Attached to car radiators, they made members' cars a mobile advertisement for the movement for better roads.
Woodrow Wilson's Lincoln Highway Association membership card, 1913
President Woodrow Wilson was officially the first member of the Lincoln Highway Association. The Association used memberships to publicize the highway; at five dollars a head, membership dues couldnt cover the cost of actually building the road.