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Philip Lee Phillips, Reluctant Ambassador to King of Maps: The Story Behind the First Superintendent of Maps at the Library of Congress

Today’s post is from Ryan Moore, a Cartographic Specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

A Washington Post photo of Philip Lee Phillips taken in 1905 upon his return from Europe. The paper dubbed him the “King of Maps,” after he had acquired rare cartographic treasures from Europe’s best map dealers and galleries.

A Washington Post photo of Philip Lee Phillips taken in 1905 upon his return from Europe. The paper dubbed him the “King of Maps,” after he had acquired rare cartographic treasures from Europe’s best map dealers and galleries.

Philip Lee Phillips was the first superintendent of the Hall of Maps and Charts, today known as the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. He also was the driving force behind creating the world-renowned map collections of the Division.

Phillips, for all his notoriety, was not trained as a professional librarian and early in his career, he served as a reluctant, unconfident ambassador for the Library in meeting map vendors, according to Manuscript Division specialist Cheryl Fox. Fox shared her research on Phillips in a February 22nd lecture sponsored by the Philip Lee Phillips Society, the friends group of the Geography and Map Division.

Phillips was at first unreceptive to the idea of venturing out of the Hall of Maps and Charts, where he was busily organizing the thousands of maps received on copyright deposit and writing guidebooks to the collection.

Then-Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam mentored Phillips and encouraged him to meet with book and map vendors. Phillips was given room to fail and received frequent letters of reassurance on his trips to the Deep South in 1903 and, two years later, to Europe.

The Deep South was the home of his parents and provided him with connections to the world of former Confederate supporters. Phillips notably purchased a map of the Siege of Vicksburg that was printed on wallpaper, evidence of the shortages caused by the Union encirclement. He also returned with signed copies of books by Confederate General P.T. Beauregard, the commander of the attack on Fort Sumter, among others.

Before going to Europe, Putnam instructed Phillips to inspect the materials he came across and send lists back to the Library for consideration. This was done to avoid purchasing materials already held by the Library. Phillips acquired the visually stunning “Portolan Chart Mediterranean Sea, Livorno, 1640” by Giovanni Battista Cavallini, along with many others. He was on his way to building a collection of cartographic treasures.

Upon his return to Washington, the press dubbed Phillips “The King of Maps.”

Ms. Fox’s article, “The King of Maps: Philip Lee Philips’ First Acquisitions Trips in the Deep South 1903 and Europe 1905,” published by the Phillips Map Society, is available on the Division’s website.

Slides of her February 22nd lecture are available here. Below are two of the maps acquired by Philip Lee Phillips, namely, the “Siege of Vicksburg” map and a 1766 map of Connecticut Colony by Moses Park.

"The siege of Vicksburg, its approaches by Yazoo Pass and other routes." T.S. Hardee, published by Mobile S. H. Goetzel & Co., May 1, 1863. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

“The siege of Vicksburg, its approaches by Yazoo Pass and other routes.” T.S. Hardee, published by Mobile S. H. Goetzel & Co., May 1, 1863. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

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