Ask a Cartographer: Has Rand McNally Ever Added Fake Towns to Maps?

Lost in longitude or confused by contour lines? Want to know all the tips and tricks for getting the most out of your atlas? Curious if paper towns still exist? "Ask the Cartographer" is your opportunity to get the facts straight from the source. Tom Vitacco, Rand McNally’s Director of GIS is here to answer your burning questions, and geek out over fascinating map lore – one exploration at a time. 

This week we’re delving into map lore with the history of paper towns.

Question: Has Rand McNally ever added "paper towns", aka fake towns, to maps to catch people copying their maps or is that just a myth?

Tom’s Answer:

Almost a hundred years ago, some mapmakers did create fake towns, called "paper towns" as a way to catch copyright infringement. The idea was that if another company copies the map and includes the fake town, the original mapmaker has proof of copying. 

One famous example was the town of Algoe which was created by General Drafting Co. director Otto G. Lindberg and his assistant, Ernest Alpers. They created the town name from using a combination of their initials, Otto G. Lindberg's (OGL) and Ernest Alpers' (EA). The town then appeared on a Rand McNally map and Otto Lindberg took Rand McNally to court. Rand McNally lawyers argued to the court that its designers went to the official map of that county, looked up the coordinates, and on the spot called Agloe, they found a building called the Agloe General Store. The store owners had chosen the name “Algoe General Store” when they had seen the town of Agloe on a map distributed by Esso. Esso had bought that map from Lindberg and Alpers. 

So the fictional town had a real store in it and the town of Algoe became real. Algoe was then featured in John Green's young adult novel called 'Paper Towns' in 2008 which later become a feature film. You can go visit the spot where the general store was and see a sign for Algoe.

Mapmakers also created "trap streets" such as La Taza Drive in Upland, California to catch people copying their maps. However, Rand McNally stopped the practice in the 1980s before I started. I’ve been working for Rand McNally for 38 years and have never added or been asked to add a fake town or trap street to a map.

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Author: Tom Vitacco
Date:May 28th 2024