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Photograph of a small book showing a map unfolded while still attached to the binding of the book. A ruler on the table shows that the unfolded map is longer than 12 inches.
Nouveaux voyages de Mr. le baron de Lahontan, dans l'Amerique Septentrionale, ... Baron de Lahontan, 1703-04. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo by Amelia Raines.

Reading between the Gridlines

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A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity, thanks to generous funding from the Philip Lee Phillips Society and the Library of Congress Professional Association, to attend the Material Foundations of Map History, 1450-1900, course held by the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. The course was taught by Matthew Edney, Osher Professor in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine and Project Director for the History of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a new(ish) map librarian, I relished the opportunity to learn from a respected scholar in map history, meet like-minded colleagues from around the world, examine special collections materials at the University of Virginia Library, and emerge from the Madison Building basement to see the sunlight (while it’s good for the materials, working in a reading room with no windows has its drawbacks).

This course enabled me to think about maps – and to look at them – in new ways. Our primary focus was on materiality, i.e. the physical characteristics of maps: size, paper, format, printing method, color, etc. While these features don’t tell the whole story of a map and its function in society, it’s amazing what you can learn about the networks of people and contexts – to use Edney’s term, “spatial discourses” – in which maps are produced, distributed, and consumed by examining the object itself. In this post I’ll apply a few of these ideas by exploring maps of my home state of Michigan in the Geography and Map Division collections.

Modes of Mapping

Not all that glitters is gold, and not everything that looks like a sailing chart functions like one. Maps are made for a variety of specific purposes by a wide range of communities and specialized groups within a given society, so of course, maps will take different forms.

Map of area of modern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Each section of territory is outlined in watercolor.
North Western and Michigan Territories. Lucas Fielding Jr., [1819?]. Geography and Map Division.
Most of us are familiar with general geographical maps; this first map, North Western and Michigan Territories, is a great example. The lovely title, contrasting colors (applied by hand), broad scope, and fairly limited detail indicate that this map was intended for general reference purposes. To me, it looks like an atlas plate, and may have been published as one, although upon physical examination I don’t see any indication that it was bound into a book.

Not all maps, however, are made for general geographical reference. The map below is a property map, which documents land claims in a portion of southeast Michigan around Detroit. While physically much larger, this map covers a much smaller area. The information on the map is restricted to property boundaries, landowners’ names, descriptions of tracts and the natural resources, and basic geographical reference points like rivers and roads. Unlike the geographical map above, it’s not fitted within a grid of latitude and longitude; relative space is what matters.

Manuscript map of area around Detroit. Map is largely blank except for thin outlines around tracts of land with landowners names. Rivers and coastlines are shown.
Rough sketch of part of Wayne County, territority of United States : northwest of Ohio River, showing the present inhabited part of the country, with the different tracts of land claimed by individuals in that part. William Tatham, 1812. Geography and Map Division.

Map Printing and Production

This Wayne County property map is a manuscript map, meaning it was drawn by hand. This specific map was copied, by hand, from a sketch by Robert King, presumably also a manuscript. Since property maps typically have a small circulation – perhaps only some of the landowners, the local records office, and in this case, the US Department of State (as Michigan was still a territory in 1812 when the map was printed) would have needed copies – producing and copying this map in manuscript was faster and cheaper than contemporary printing methods.

If your 19th-century map was intended for wide public distribution, however, the large volume of maps would have made it worth your while to get it printed. Both of the maps below are from general geographical atlases, produced for the general reader, student, family, or library. This first one was printed from a copper plate, a very common method used for maps for several hundred years. Copper plates could be engraved or etched, both of which allowed for fine detail. This type of printing didn’t permit printing large areas of ink, so the lakes are filled in with dense rows of thin lines, and the counties are colored by hand, likely using a stencil.

Printed map of Michigan and Wisconsin. The southern parts of each territory are divided into counties, each of which is colored a different color. The northern parts have no counties, but show rivers and lakes.
Michigan and part of Wisconsin territory. From The American atlas, exhibiting the post offices, post roads, rail roads, canals, and the physical & political divisions of the United States of North America. David H. Burr, [1839].
This map was printed using cerography, a method by which wax was applied to plates, a design engraved, and then a thin layer of metal adhered to the surface. This thin layer could then be removed and used as a printing plate. Cerography was a common method used for maps in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but less common for other types of media.

Map of Michigan on atlas plate. Counties, cities, and rivers are shown and labeled. The state is colored a light pink; surrounding areas are uncolored.
Michigan. From Morse’s North American atlas.. Sidney E. Morse, [1842-5]. Geography and Map Division.
By the late 19th century, lithography – a planar printing method using stones – became widespread. Lithographic printing is cheap, which makes it more worthwhile to do small print runs. As a result, local maps with a limited consumer market became worth the cost of printing. Color printing is also much easier to do with lithography, and complex layers of color could be applied in a process called chromolithography, as seen in this beautiful panoramic map of Lansing.

Panoramic or bird's eye view map of Lansing in rich color. Houses and landscape features are shown, and the map is surrounded by a decorative border with illustrations of prominent local buildings.
Birds eye view of the city of Lansing, Michigan 1866. A. Ruger, [1866]. Geography and Map Division.
Maps in Books

While many maps are published as single sheets, and others are bound in atlases, still others are published in books, to serve a variety of purposes including reference and illustration. Common library practice beginning in the 19th century saw many maps separated from the books they were published in, generally for storage and preservation purposes. This map, for example, was produced for Doggett’s railroad guide in 1848. The blank strip down the middle of the page shows how it could be bound into a text block without losing a portion of the map in the book’s gutter.

Small map of Michigan, on one sheet but divided into two halves with a blank, unprinted strip down the middle. The map shows minimal detail except the railroad lines.
Railroads in Michigan, with steamboat routes on the Great Lakes. Drawn and engraved for Doggett’s railroad guide & gazetteer. John Doggett, [1848]. Geography and Map Division.
Books provide important context which can get lost when the map is stored separately. Thankfully, catalog records can help reunite maps with their original tomes. As noted in the record, the map below was originally included in Nouveaux voyages de Mr. le baron de Lahontan, dans l’Amérique Septentrionale, a travel narrative published in The Hague in 1703. The text of the book explains Lahontan’s sources, which he claimed included a map drawn for him by a group of people called the Gnacsitares.

Printed map showing an area of the northern Mississippi River, extending east as far as Michigan and west as far as "Pais des Mozeemlek". The map shows a large river extending west of the Mississippi, several lakes, and a chain of mountains, and is illustrated with pictures of indigenous buildings and boats.
Carte de la riviere Longue : et de quelques autres, qui se dechargent dans le grand fleuve de Missisipi [sic] … ; Carte que les Gnacsitares : ont dessine sur des paux de cerfs … Baron de Lahontan, [1703]. Geography and Map Division.
I took a field trip to the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room to view the original book, which is tiny; the map would have to be folded up to fit within, and indeed several folds are visible.

Photograph of back of the previous map, showing several fold lines.
Detail of back of Carte de la riviere Longue : et de quelques autres, qui se dechargent dans le grand fleuve de Missisipi [sic] … ; Carte que les Gnacsitares : ont dessine sur des paux de cerfs … Baron de Lahontan, [1703]. Geography and Map Division. Photo by Amelia Raines.
The photo below shows how a separately-printed map can be bound into a text in a way that allows it to be unfolded.

Photo of a small book open to show a folded-up map which has been bound into the book on one edge. A ruler held up to the bottom of the book shows it's about 3.5 inches wide.
Nouveaux voyages de Mr. le baron de Lahontan, dans l’Amerique Septentrionale, … Baron de Lahontan, 1703-04. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo by Amelia Raines.
Photograph of the same book as above, showing a map unfolded while still attached to the binding of the book. A ruler on the table shows that the unfolded map is longer than 12 inches.
Nouveaux voyages de Mr. le baron de Lahontan, dans l’Amerique Septentrionale, … Baron de Lahontan, 1703-04. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo by Amelia Raines.

Though I’ve seen some of these maps before, I’m now able to look at them with fresh eyes. Much of my work involves introducing people to the Geography and Map Division’s rich collections for the first time. Equipped with everything I learned in this course, I hope to enrich their experiences of these maps with information about the processes involved in their creation, the audiences for which they were intended, and the contexts in which they were published.

Learn More

The Geography and Map Reading Room Reference Collection contains many books about the history of maps and map printing; a few are listed here:

Comments (2)

  1. I’ve been fascinated by maps since I was a child. We had a city zoning map mounted on wood – it was just the older parts of town. And then there was the build-your-own atlas from National Geographic, and the USGS uad on the family room wall (San Jose West).
    I ended up working in mapping and GIS.

  2. Nice piece! (We used to call those bound-in, folded inserts gatefolds.)

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