The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860

The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860

The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860

The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860


In the age of MapQuest and GPS, we take cartographic literacy for granted. We should not; the ability to find meaning in maps is the fruit of a long process of exposure and instruction. A "carto-coded" America--a nation in which maps are pervasive and meaningful--had to be created. The Social Life of Maps tracks American cartography's spectacular rise to its unprecedented cultural influence.

Between 1750 and 1860, maps did more than communicate geographic information and political pretensions. They became affordable and intelligible to ordinary American men and women looking for their place in the world. School maps quickly entered classrooms, where they shaped reading and other cognitive exercises; giant maps drew attention in public spaces; miniature maps helped Americans chart personal experiences. In short, maps were uniquely social objects whose visual and material expressions affected commercial practices and graphic arts, theatrical performances and the communication of emotions.

This lavishly illustrated study follows popular maps from their points of creation to shops and galleries, schoolrooms and coat pockets, parlors and bookbindings. Between the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, early Americans bonded with maps; Martin Bruckner's comprehensive history of quotidian cartographic encounters is the first to show us how.


When taking measure of the “Benefits” of the Civil War in 1865, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson introduced an unusual meter. Upon reflecting that “the present war, on a prodigiously large scale, has cost us how many valuable lives,” Emerson launched into a cost-benefit analysis, according to which the war “has made many lives valuable that were not so before, through the start and expansion it has given.” “The journals say,” he continued, “[the war] has demoralized many rebel regiments, but also it has moralized many of our regiments, and not only so, but moralized cities and states. It added to every house and heart a vast enlargement. in every house and shop, an American map has been unrolled, and daily studied,—and now that peace has come, every citizen finds himself a skilled student of the condition, means, and future, of this continent.” Unlike newspapers, which were using names and numbers to provide an empirical reckoning of the war’s momentous losses, Emerson called upon maps and the broader discourse surrounding them as the means for recalculating the balance of human suffering. Subject to daily study, maps were giving citizens a renewed sense of moral fiber (“heart”), domestic purpose (“house”), and national belonging (“continent”). According to Emerson, the “American map” was thus the nation’s moral compass, directing the lives of its citizens, realigning their social orientation to each other, and giving new definition to a postwar union.

The 1866 lithographic print of the painting Home Again by Trevor McClurg at once illustrated and elaborated Emerson’s cartographic turn (Figure 1). in the picture, the arrival of a wounded Union officer interrupts a domestic scene of muted comfort. As his figure draws the eyes of the members of the household, this detailed portrayal of the soldier recalls the poignant stories of family reunions taking place nationwide. But by framing the soldier’s profile against the backdrop of a large wall map showing the nation’s outline, the picture grounds the reunion inside a deeply layered narrative about American map . . .

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