I am a cartophile, which simply means that I love maps. In fact, I don’t think I have ever met anyone interested in history who doesn’t love maps. Maps not only give us a visual idea of place, but they are a great research resource for historians. We can use maps from any particular time to discover the mapmakers understanding of their physical world and what they felt was important in their world.
Maps can be as simple and personal as directions to your home scribbled on a napkin for a friend. As is also the case with larger and more complex maps, what you, the cartographer, choose to include or exclude says something about you. Do you show all cross streets, or only the streets that will be traveled? To signal a turn, do you reference as a landmark the hardware store or the fast food restaurant? Do you use that landmark because it means something to you, or because you believe it will mean something to your intended audience? On a very small scale, those are some of the issues that arise when you are called upon to either create or interpret a map.
During my youth, the military moved our family every few years, often halfway across the country. Because of those moves and traveling to visit family in the middle of the U.S., I remember a lot of road trips. I actually liked (and still enjoy) road trips, probably because my position in the family hierarchy meant that I usually got a window seat. Because of these trips I know a bunch of car games designed to keep kids from either getting bored or fighting with each other, but I also know my way around a road map or atlas. I still prefer them to using navigation systems because I like the colors of the terrain and the expanded view you get, generally a whole state on one oversized page.
Road maps are utilitarian, helping you get from one place to another, and showing you what you’re going to speed past on the way. But what really stoked my love for maps were the pull out maps included in National Geographic. Generally two-sided, one side was usually like a road map, while the other side often had historical information, including important personages arrayed around the edges. They were so colorful and fun that I never really noticed how much I was learning. There’s a great article from National Geographic titled “How World War I Launched Mapmaking at National Geographic” that describes the beginnings of this tradition.
As long as there have been people, those people have created maps. Through all those years, cartography has been in constant flux. First I want to address the forms of maps, the base that is used in their creation. There are maps carved into rocks by the earliest humans, using simple symbols to represent the best areas for hunter-gatherers to find food, and later, to show the best hunting grounds. These early mapmakers used symbols to represent rivers and mountains, although it was difficult to show the terrain by the use of shading with the primitive tools they had available. They also used clay, and carving into wet clay had to have been easier than the surface of stone.
Later maps were drawn on animal skins, such as seal and deer, using natural dyes. This made it easier to show finer detail. We also have ancient maps drawn on papyrus and later the use of vellum. Maps were also created using mosaics and frescoes, and were even embroidered on fabric. All this led to the modern day use of paper and digital formats.
More important than the base of the map was the content. As I was reading about this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Maps have been and are still used to mark borders and boundaries, to further a social or political agenda, to profess religious ideas, to show celestial patterns, to show geologic formations and topography, and to show climate and weather patterns. Maps were also used to map the spread of disease, including a cholera outbreak in London in the mid-nineteenth century. By mapping the reported cholera cases house by house and street by street, it was discovered that one water pump was the source of the outbreak. When that pump was sealed off, the infection rates plummeted.
Many of the earlier maps were local or regional simply because that was all the cartographers knew. But even before the age of global exploration, cartographers were trying to map the world. I am always amazed at the human desire to explore, and old maps show that desire has always existed. Those old maps may not have been accurate, but they show that people wanted to know and understand the scope of the world. Many early maps were of the sea and of coastlines, as that was a prominent form of early exploration. If you look at many old maps, you can sea that the coastal areas are very detailed, while the interior is often blank and unknown. You can also see many interesting depictions of sea monsters.
One disturbing thing I hadn’t consciously realized about maps is how much they are about control. There is often the feeling that those who map the land can control that land. We create geological maps so we know where all natural resources are located and use them to control mineral exploration and mining. The United States Congress created the United States Geological Survey in 1879 to map all public lands. Most of all, we mark borders, and by “we” I mean humans, not just the United States. Mapping makes it real.
Now we have maps online that look kind of like road maps, but with one click you can switch to satellite view. It’s not in real time; months after I sold my house and moved to another state, I checked out my former home in satellite view and noticed my car was still in the driveway. My favorite way to use the satellite view is to check out the Pacific coastline. You can see details of the ocean floor, curves and straight lines and where the ground suddenly drops away. With another click, Google also has a street view that simultaneously creeps me out a little and makes me crazy happy to be able to do some armchair traveling.
I think it’s time to pull my dog-eared and notated atlas out of the trunk and hit the road. So many roads, so little time…