Friday, May 24, 2019

Good Maps

I put The Historical Atlas of the United States on my wish list over a decade ago, when it was newish and $70 or so.  I included a note not to purchase it until it went under $10.  It's about $4 plus shipping, so it finally came amongst my birthday presents this year. Long have I waited.

There are fascinating things already, but what I notice first is something I have long known but keep forgetting. (Sorry, Professor Jonathan.) Old maps are hard to read.  Tedious.  Only recently has the idea of a user-friendly map been so high up the scale of values. The need for useful-at-a-glace road maps may be part of this.  It's still fascinating stuff, to look at coastlines and river mouths drawn in exquisite detail, reflecting the needs of ocean-going navigators but of little use to most of us today, trailing off into vagueness just a few miles in, with mountains and settlements in only approximately the right places, an on beyond, much speculation. It reminds me again, the coasts were settled first and were the entire show for a century and a half after Jamestown. As a point of reference, Lexington KY, now only an eight-hour drive from the Atlantic, was a campsite in 1775 when they heard news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord and decided to commemorate that with the name. (Digression. Sorry.)

We have really wonderful maps these days.

1 comment:

JMSmith said...

Old maps generally suffer from clutter. This was partly due to the fact that they were general-purpose maps on which all sorts of data was entered (rivers, mountains, cities, kingdoms), and partly due to cartographers embarrassment over blank spaces. American maps from the 19th century are particularly guilty of the latter error. Instead of using an absence of place-names to indicate a region with little population, cartographers filled places like Nevada and Arizona with the names of mere post-offices and trading posts. So in the east, no place with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants is shown, in the west, any place with at least 10. The result is a map in which American settlement appears almost uniform from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

To the modern eye, those nineteenth-century American maps also appear cluttered with very conspicuous counties. This generally obscures the patterns I'm interested in, but I try to bear in mind that the county was at that time the basic unit of geographical reference. If my brother went west and I wished to see where he had gone to on a map, I looked for a little square labeled Gray county, Kansas. And if I wished to send him a letter, I was glad the map included the names of the post offices.

We use the word elegant to describe a scientific theory that explains a lot with a little. I'd use the world in a similar way to describe a very good map. The Raven company nowadays makes some very elegant maps. Their real genius is to print a map that appears to show only physical terrain when viewed from five or ten feet away, but then discloses a wealth of useful human geography on close inspection. As you say, we live in a golden age of mapping.