The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Thomas Guides disappear in a GPS/Google Maps world

by Sanden Totten | The Madeleine Brand Show

Vintage Thomas Guides at the downtown LA public library. Sanden Totten / KPCC

Before smartphones, GPS and MapQuest, there was really only one way to navigate Los Angeles — the Thomas Guide, spiral-bound books which contain detailed grid maps of cities and neighborhoods. Once known as "the bible of L.A. roadways," they were so common that businesses routinely advertised their locations by listing the page of the Thomas Guide they occupied. But as newer technology has taken over, those once-ubiquitous Thomas Guides have gotten harder to find.

The Thomas Brothers, who lent the maps their name, founded the company in 1915. People from beyond California might never have heard of the guide books. But drivers around L.A. have a special attachment to this particular brand of map, including KPCC's Sandra Tsing Loh.

“It’s like a bible, it’s like an old King James Bible," said Loh.

For about as long as she’s held a driver’s license, Loh’s owned a Thomas Guide. “Certainly, there’s a lot of memories with these things. It’s taken us a lot of places, through a couple decades, and I love a Thomas Guide. You can go anywhere."

She said it was indispensable when she worked as a freelance reporter in the 1990s, and she points out that — unlike a lot of L.A. — this guide pays no heed to fame and money.

“If we look at the Thomas Guide, every section of the city gets the same credence," Loh said. "So Beverly Hills takes up the same space as Montebello. Or Bell Gardens or Irwindale. So if you actually flip through the Thomas Guide you are like, ‘What are these... Lancaster?!’ So it’s a very democratic book.”

Map librarian Glen Creason, also known as "the map guy," says that's part of the map's charm. “You get the big picture. That’s what you get,” he explains.

Creason works at the Central Library in downtown LA. He is in charge of a collection of more than 200 Thomas Guides, including one from 1946 that is embossed with a gold label.

"It’s like artwork. They are pretty nice,” says Creason as he carefully flips through the pages of a vintage guide.

The Thomas brothers started making wall maps in California around the turn of the last century. Back then, Angelenos were more likely to hop a trolley than take a car.

But in the 1940s the brothers tried something different. Rather than printing a large sheet of paper users had to fold like origami, they divided their map into a grid and gave each section its own page in a book.

As car culture caught on in Southern California, so did the new Thomas Brothers booklets. They spread to surrounding states like Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.

Creason said the Thomas Brothers eventually dominated the map market in much of the American west. “It’s also like a name, like Xerox or Jello. Thomas Guide, when you say that, people know exactly what you are talking about.”

People so trusted the company, witnesses referred to its maps as evidence in court cases. If those grids included a mistake, Creason said it was probably intentional. “They would throw in a fake street or so — for people who wanted to pirate their materials, there are a few streets they would throw in that don’t actually exist.”

The company updated the Guide every year and the library would always pick up the latest edition. But one day, Creason said, it just stopped. “It’s a great mystery to me. And we have a standing order with them, we order like 12 different Thomas Guides, and we stopped getting them.”

Like a lot of people, Creason wondered what happened to the Thomas Guide.

Nancy Yoho knows. She was vice president of Thomas Brothers Maps until she retired a few years back. She says the guidebooks faded out of sight because “GPS and the Internet mapping really took over the market.”

Sure enough, the Consumer Electronics Association says almost half of all Americans own GPS units now. Thomas Brothers never entered that market.

Former exec Yoho says the company is still in business but they publish guide books much less often. Still she is proud of the company’s place in California history. “You know, a lot of my effort and passion went into making those maps. So I am still very fond of them.”

But even Thomas Guide devotee, Sandra Tsing Loh has reluctantly switched to a new mapping tool. “The iPhone — ugh,” she says of her new navigator.

She said her mobile phone makes it easy to route trips, but that convenience comes at a price.

“A Thomas Guide, you would just look at the big routes and clock it out in your head," Loh said. "I’ve noticed with the iPhone you fixate on what that’s telling you rather than use your own logic to navigate. You definitely lose part of your brain when a small phone is trying to bully you into taking a certain route.”

If the phone ever breaks down, or just won’t plot a good route, she keeps her well-worn copy of the Thomas Guide in the backseat. Just in case.

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