On the Romance of Old Maps

Roger wrote a lovely post the other day about old maps:

When I was growing up, my grandfather, McKinley Green, gave me the maps included in his subscription to National Geographic magazine.

I still have many of those old maps he provided from about 1958 to 1971 when I went to college. For a time, I thought to throw them out. But there’s a fascinating thing about these documents. They become historical relics.

Remember Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which are now multiple countries? East and West Germany, now one nation? British Guyana and British Honduras, now Guyana and Belize, respectively?

I, too, love old maps, because they go from being a depiction of the world to being a depiction of the way humans used to view the world, and that in itself is informative. It shows how far we’ve come, for instance, to look at a map of a heavily-colonized Africa from a century ago to a map of an Africa where, for good or ill at any one point of time, the nations there are self-determining.

Old maps aren’t just about history; they can even be political items in themselves. Witness this sub-story from an episode of The West Wing, which has all the scenes from this little subplot edited together:

Setting aside the notion of why President Bartlet would want to hang a map of the Holy Land in 1709 in a West Wing office in the first place, the question raised here–would the map’s presence there imply anything regarding official American Israel policy–is a good one.

One of my favorite reference books is a tome I boosted from one of the Discard piles way back in 1989 or so, when I had my first part-time job working in the Technical Services department of the library at St. Bonaventure University. It’s simply titled, Historical Atlas, and that’s exactly what it is.

The book was pretty beat-up around the edges when I liberated it. I assume that the book was being discarded because it had been replaced with a volume that was more up-to-date. I’ve determined that there was at least a ninth edition of Shepherd’s book. Obviously his work was updated by other individuals, as Shepherd himself died in 1934.

The book is loaded with fascinating historical maps: Europe in the age of exploration, for instance, or near-view maps of a typical medieval cloister, or maps of the trade routes to Asia in the Renaissance, and more. The maps within this book aren’t just informative, they are beautiful to behold.

What’s interesting, in the “meta” sense, is that these maps have become historical items in several ways. These maps always depicted the world as it was at some point, so they don’t age in quite the same way that a new NatGeo map does; historical maps serve as a retroactive freezing of one moment in time, after all. But they also capture how history was done, decades ago; these maps demonstrate what was prioritized for historians and how they looked at the world back in those days. These maps capture history in a double way: not just depicting history, but the history of history.

Here are several of the maps from Historical Atlas:

Finally, a nod to the greatest old map I have ever seen, because you don’t just see it, you walk through it: the Mapparium at the Christian Science headquarters in Boston, MA. Now, setting aside the rather odd set of beliefs that lie at the heart of Christian Science, the Mapparium itself is a stunning exhibit. It is literally a walk-through globe, three stories high, with the maps painted on individually backlit panes of stained glass. You take this all in from a glass walkway that crosses the globe along an equatorial diameter. The effect is deeply affecting (and not just because the acoustics inside the Mapparium make all whispers audible anywhere you stand); there’s something about standing inside a truly proportional representation of our world that’s incredibly moving. The Mapparium is, however, another example of a depiction of a world gone by; the maps have not been updated since the thing was built in the 1930s, so you still see places like French Indochina and the still-uncolonized Africa.

Of course, the best old maps are the ones that lead to treasure, but that’s a-whole-nother thing!

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2 Responses to On the Romance of Old Maps

  1. Roger says:

    I covet that book. I realize that covetousness is a sin, but whatcha gonna do?
    One of my favorite posts involves the ever-changing borders of Poland. https://www.rogerogreen.com/2013/04/29/p-is-for-polands-borders/

  2. Lee McAulay says:

    *All* maps lead to treasure. Otherwise they’re just pictures!

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