Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps

Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps

by Stephen J. Hornsby

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Instructive, amusing, colorful—pictorial maps have been used and admired since the first medieval cartographer put pen to paper depicting mountains and trees across countries, people and objects around margins, and sea monsters in oceans. More recent generations of pictorial map artists have continued that traditional mixture of whimsy and fact, combining cartographic elements with text and images and featuring bold and arresting designs, bright and cheerful colors, and lively detail. In the United States, the art form flourished from the 1920s through the 1970s, when thousands of innovative maps were mass-produced for use as advertisements and decorative objects—the golden age of American pictorial maps.
Picturing America is the first book to showcase this vivid and popular genre of maps. Geographer Stephen J. Hornsby gathers together 158 delightful pictorial jewels, most drawn from the extensive collections of the Library of Congress. In his informative introduction, Hornsby outlines the development of the cartographic form, identifies several representative artists, describes the process of creating a pictorial map, and considers the significance of the form in the history of Western cartography. Organized into six thematic sections, Picturing America covers a vast swath of the pictorial map tradition during its golden age, ranging from “Maps to Amuse” to “Maps for War.” Hornsby has unearthed the most fascinating and visually striking maps the United States has to offer: Disney cartoon maps, college campus maps, kooky state tourism ads, World War II promotional posters, and many more. This remarkable, charming volume’s glorious full­-color pictorial maps will be irresistible to any map lover or armchair traveler.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226386188
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/23/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 159 MB
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About the Author

Stephen J. Hornsby is director of the Canadian-American Center and professor of geography and Canadian studies at the University of Maine. He is author and coeditor of several books, including the prize-winning Historical Atlas of Maine.

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Picturing America

The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps

By Stephen J. Hornsby

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 Stephen J. Hornsby and The Library of Congress
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-38618-8



An American Genre

From the 1920s to the 1960s, American popular culture and commercial mapmaking intersected to produce a remarkably creative period in the history of Western cartography. During those years, dozens of graphic artists and cartographers created thousands of pictorial maps depicting the history, geography, and culture of the United States and lands overseas. No other country produced the quantity, quality, and variety of pictorial maps that the United States did. Although now little known, pictorial maps were enormously popular during their heyday, decorating homes, schools, and clubs; appearing in books, magazines, and newspapers; and circulating as tourist guides and advertising brochures. The maps reflected American culture, capturing the dynamism of the nation's burgeoning skyscraper cities, great industrial factories, and streamlined locomotives, airplanes, and automobiles, as well as portraying the country's fascination with its colonial and early Republican past. Pictorial maps also displayed advances in printing technology, particularly color lithography, and showcased the talents and originality of some of the nation's leading graphic artists. By World War II, pictorial maps had created a powerful visual image of the United States and were beginning to reimagine the look of the world for a mass consumer audience.

The pictorial map genre has a long and distinguished pedigree. Medieval maps, Renaissance city views, Dutch world maps, and American bird's-eye views all incorporated pictorial elements. In the early twentieth century, English graphic artist MacDonald Gill, taking advantage of color lithography, created dazzling pictorial maps for the London Underground Railway. His maps were extremely popular and widely influential. But it was in the United States that pictorial mapmaking reached its zenith. In the mid-1920s, American pictorial maps first burst into view as a significant part of the country's burgeoning popular culture. The economy was booming, New York had supplanted London as the world's largest and most dynamic city, and Hollywood movies spread images of America around the globe. Pictorial maps reflected this cultural vitality. Drawing on their own mapping heritage as well as new design trends from Europe, American graphic artists and cartographers pushed the boundaries of pictorial mapping in exciting directions. Hundreds of strikingly designed and richly colored pictorial maps poured off the presses during the late 1920s and 1930s. Even the Great Depression did not stem the flow. Although production inevitably slackened during World War II, several innovative pictorial maps were published during the 1940s, and many more were created during the postwar boom years. By the 1960s, however, the genre was waning. Greater use of photography in advertising, a shift away from the map as an advertising tool, and the retirement of pioneering graphic artists who first excelled in the 1920s and 1930s helped bring the golden age of American pictorial mapping to a close. A handful of graphic artists in the United States still practice the craft, but their output is much smaller and their impact far less than in the early twentieth century.

Pictorial maps formed a distinctive cartographic genre. They were not scientific representations of the Earth's surface, but artistic renderings of places, regions, and countries. Pictorial maps commonly depicted people, history, architecture, landscape, and terrain. They combined map, image, and text, frequently for the purposes of telling a visual story or to capture a sense of place. As a popular art form, pictorial maps appealed to a wide audience. They were often as attractive to children as to adults. The best pictorial maps were characterized by bold and arresting graphic design, bright and cheerful colors, and lively detail. Many depicted the United States with great verve and excitement. They reflected the country's cultural confidence and optimism, helping to shape the way people looked at America and the wider world.

The dominance of scientific mapping in Western culture has meant that pictorial maps have been largely ignored. In the United States, these maps have been treated as ephemera, the flotsam and jetsam of an enormous sea of popular culture. As a result, only a few libraries have collected such maps, and even fewer archives have accessioned the professional records of the graphic artists who designed them. Picturing America begins the task of sorting out the historical record of these cultural artifacts. The book examines pictorial maps that were designed, printed, and published as an individual sheet or poster or as part of a foldout brochure. At least two thousand such stand-alone maps are known to have survived. The book does not survey the thousands of pictorial maps that appeared in various publications or were printed on other media, such as handkerchiefs, scarves, and tablecloths.

Drawing on the extensive collections in the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Picturing America charts the development of the genre during its golden age from the 1920s to the 1960s. The book considers the significance of American pictorial maps in the history of Western cartography, outlines the development of the genre, identifies several representative artists, studies the process of creating a pictorial map, examines pictorial map design, discusses the marketing of maps, and highlights two collectors who donated their extensive collections to the Library of Congress. Six sections of plates illustrate different categories of American pictorial maps.

Significance of Pictorial Maps

"The curse of many a childhood is the study of geography — and the curse of geography, for many people, is the dullness of maps." So wrote American journalist Jay Mordall in 1929. He continued, "One remembers even now with vague discomfort the drab colors and dreary shapes of Africa, South America, Asia — which was just an overgrown offshoot of Europe — with the names of the country's products printed in the proper places in tiny, illegible type." For Mordall, mapmaking had lost a "little of its interest" because it was "no longer an art." Over the centuries, cartography had become an exact science, and "imagination and poetry" had "gone out of it."

When Mordall was writing in the late 1920s, American mapmaking was dominated by scientific and commercial interests. The federal government, through the US Geological Survey (USGS), produced topographic and geological maps. Private companies, such as Rand McNally, George F. Cram, and C. S. Hammond, issued atlases and individual map sheets. The National Geographic Society created a range of products, from the well-known magazine with its map inserts to map sheets and atlases. Oil corporations, frequently working with General Drafting Company and Rand McNally, turned out road maps, popularly known as "gas maps." Towns and cities also produced their own transit and street maps. All these various maps showed the location of places for the purposes of navigation, wayfinding, and planning. Maps were produced with a constant scale, aligned to the grid of latitude and longitude, and oriented to north at the top of the sheet. Decorative information was eschewed in favor of a striking cover, as on gas maps, or demographic and economic information, as in atlases. Scientifically accurate and functional in use, these maps had a standard, uniform look. "With only a few producers using relatively similar techniques," historian Susan Schulten observed, "American maps began to develop a rather homogeneous style as the industry focused increasingly on profits rather than aesthetics and tailored its products to suit the widest possible audience."

Pictorial maps were quite different from these scientific maps. Unlike the federal agencies and publishing houses that produced relatively uniform maps, artists and cartographers created a great variety of pictorial output. In many cases, these mapmakers produced only one or two maps over the course of their careers, usually as a sideline to their bread-and-butter commercial work. As a result, American pictorial maps reflected an enormous range of individual artistic styles, and no one artist dominated the genre. This stood in marked contrast to other countries. MacDonald Gill was by far the leading pictorial mapper in Great Britain from the 1910s to the 1940s, and Loucien Boucher played a similar role in France in the 1940s and 1950s. Although few artists in the United States reached the level of Gill's accomplishment, the sheer number and great variety of pictorial maps in the United States had no parallel.

American pictorial maps also differed from scientific maps in their content. As mapmaker Jack Atherton observed in the 1930s, "Today's decorative maps no longer attempt guidance of an explorer's destiny, leaving that tremendous responsibility to topographical maps ably compiled by scientific methods. Instead, through a wealth of illustration and a reasonable degree of geographic accuracy, they reveal intimately the innermost character of a country, incorporating subtly the charm and romance of the past with a vivid picture of the present." Pictorial maps captured the "innermost character of a country" by highlighting history, landscape, architecture, and human attributes such as affection, attachment, nostalgia, and memory. Pictorial maps amused and instructed, showed the global reach of war, and reflected the prosperity of postwar America. They also enthusiastically sold places, regions, states, industries, transportation, products, and services of all kinds. The finest pictorial maps spun together maps, pictures, and text to create a visual story or representation that instantly summarized a sense of place, delighting the eye and stimulating the viewer's imagination. Although ignored in most histories of cartography, pictorial maps were arguably the most creative and dynamic part of American cartography in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Cultural Influences

American pictorial mapmakers drew inspiration from a rich cartographic heritage. Medieval maps with their fantastic beasts, alarming sea monsters, fabulous cities, and statuesque kings and queens offered plentiful ideas. Although medieval maps were not as widely reproduced in the 1920s and 1930s as they are today, black- and-white illustrations could be found in books and magazines, and a few manuscript maps existed in major public and university libraries. The American Geographical Society, then domiciled in New York City, received its great medieval mappa mundi, or world map, in 1906. Elaborately engraved sixteenth- and seventeenth-century maps from Italy, the Netherlands, and France were more readily available in major libraries. These maps established standard ways of presenting noncartographic material to the viewer, principally through the use of decorative borders and elaborate cartouches.

American pictorial mapmakers could also draw on their own heritage of pictorial maps, particularly those produced by lithography. After the Civil War, numerous maps depicting humorous, satirical, commercial, and political subjects were published, either as broadsides or in newspapers and journals. Designed to attract the reader's attention, these maps were usually bold in design and limited to two or three colors. Another type of popular pictorial map appeared on trade cards. The Arbuckle Coffee Company issued sets of trade cards in the mid-1880s that showed different parts of the world. A typical card comprised a simple map flanked by two or three pictures of local scenes. From there it was but a short step to move pictures onto maps. Around 1890, Schaefer & Weisenbach of New York printed Rambles Through Our Country: A Geographical Game for the Young, a magnificent chromolithograph that showed American states, their principal towns, and typical landscapes. In 1915, Matthews Northrup Works of Buffalo, New York, a firm known for its high- quality printing, produced a full-color pictorial map of economic activity in the United States. In its rich color and thumbnail scenes, the map anticipated many of the pictorial maps that were published more than twenty years later. In 1919, the American meatpacking company Armour created an advertisement showing a food map of the United States. Three years later, Armour published the map as an individual sheet. Nevertheless, these various pictorial maps were isolated examples; they did not yet form a wave of pictorial mapping.

One type of pictorial cartographic image that was produced in large numbers was the bird's-eye view of cities and towns. Although these views date back to 1500, when Jacobo de' Barberi's great View of Venice was published, they reached their greatest development in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Spurred by the invention of cheap lithographic printing, artists began making bird's-eye views of towns and cities in the 1830s. Some views were taken from surrounding hills and mountains, but most combined on-the-ground depiction of buildings and their representation from an imaginary viewpoint high in the air. Three- dimensional representation of buildings was combined with two- dimensional map layout. Some of the most artistically accomplished views shaded into pictorial maps. A view of Fresno County, California, circa 1920, was even called a "pictorial map." Nearly 5,000 bird's-eye views were eventually created, covering as many as 2,400 individual places, with some of the largest cities having more than thirty different views. Although the interest in such images began to wane by the 1890s, thousands offramed views decorated the walls of American homes, schools, libraries, and offices into the twentieth century. For graphic artists, it was not a great leap of imagination to move from a bird's-eye view to a pictorial map.

Another important influence was American popular visual culture. Many pictorial mapmakers worked as commercial artists and were familiar with advertising, comics, cartoons, movies, and posters. Brash, colorful advertisements could be found on everything from fruit crates to billboards. Newspapers dedicated pages to comics printed in full color. The first successful animated cartoon with synchronized sound made its appearance in 1928 with Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse. Brightly colored and boldly designed posters advertised the products and services of many American companies, particularly those of the travel industry. All these visual forms filtered into pictorial maps: graphic artists were quick to incorporate speech bubbles, story panels, comic strips, cinematic panoramas, and striking design into pictorial maps. In employing these visual tropes, pictorial maps soon became another part of America's enveloping visual culture.

A more diffuse cultural influence on pictorial maps was the Colonial Revival movement. The centennial of American independence in 1876 created enormous interest in the colonial and early federal periods, an interest that lasted through the sesquicentennial in 1926 and even into the early 1940s. Indeed, some scholars argue that the Colonial Revival is still with us in the twenty-first century, making it the "most popular, long-lasting, and widespread expression of identity that has yet developed in the United States." Apart from national commemorations, the Colonial Revival movement provided a refuge for many Americans disturbed by the country's rapid industrialization, influx of immigrants, rampant commercialism, and enveloping mass culture. The Colonial Revival movement touched many aspects of art and design, particularly architecture, gardening, and household furnishings. Its most spectacular creation was the preservation of colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, which began in 1926. Although the movement focused on historic buildings and landscapes of the thirteen colonies, the Colonial Revival also affected French Louisiana and Spanish Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. To commemorate the past and enliven colonial settings, Colonial Revival devotees staged historical pageants, hired costumed reenactors, and produced a variety of printed material, ranging from guidebooks to colonial facsimiles and historical maps. For pictorial mapmakers in the 1920s and 1930s, the colonial and federal periods offered a rich vein to tap, providing a variety of patriotic content as well as opportunities to recreate historical styles of cartography (plate 23).


Excerpted from Picturing America by Stephen J. Hornsby. Copyright © 2017 Stephen J. Hornsby and The Library of Congress. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Ralph E. Ehrenberg
Pictorial Maps: An American Genre
Maps to Amuse
Maps to Instruct
Maps of Places and Regions
Maps for Industry
Maps for War
Maps for Postwar America

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