Historical Atlases a Go-Go

I’ve looked at a bunch of Historical Atlases over the last couple weeks. I’m just going to comment on four that seemed especially worthy of comment, for good or ill. […]

I’ve looked at a bunch of Historical Atlases over the last couple weeks. I’m just going to comment on four that seemed especially worthy of comment, for good or ill.

The first one I looked at was an atlas I discovered this summer– Donald Cole’s Atlas of American History. Published in 1963 and created by the head of the History Department at Phillips Exeter, the book has a lot to recommend it. It’s a great account of major events in American History, and has a decent amount of textual explication of events– I’d say the book averages about 65% text and 35% maps. In this way, the book was the easiest of those I looked at to "read" in a traditional, linear prose manner. It reads like a traditional introductory American History textbook, with a strong eye to the geographic. Given the author’s profession, working at a prep school, I’d guess that’s exactly the text’s goal. And it works quite well.

For those of us who may be somewhat past the need for a high school History text, however, the book still works. The very strictly chronological ordering of the book and the clear, easily legible maps make it a useful reference when you want to re-orient yourself within a particular area of the US at a particular time. It’s also, given its age, a primary source of its own: I found it fascinating to look at the "contemporary issues" at the end of the book and find the partitioned nation of Vietnam and maps of states that had integrated public schools.

A note on design: this book is straightforward with few embellishments and a very limited palate of black, white, grey, salmon, and brown, which makes it quite nice as far as quick reference and fast comprehension of visual data. There is one embellishment that I really enjoyed, however: the edges of each page that contains a map are scored with a grid, much like on a map, with A, B, C, etc. along the top and 1, 2, 3… along the side of the page. While not strictly functional, I really like this small stylistic embellishment, as it seems to me to serve to remind the reader to place primacy on geography and space: this is not merely a heavily-illustrated textbook of American History, it’s a book that places History within geographic context.

"Western Land Claims Ceded by the States" from Cole's "Atlas of American History"

The next book I’d like to discuss is Dan Bahat’s 1983 Carta’s Historical Atlas of Jerusalem. What really struck me about this book is the use of scale. While the book covers 4000 years of history, it is limited to one relatively small city. Because of this, the book is able to give street maps of the same area over time, and to provide floorplans of buildings of note. I found this especially cool, because it comes closer to the everday understanding of space and place that I think is so important when looking at the experiences of historical actors. You learn a lot more about everyday life from looking at the layout of a particular city and its inhabitants than from looking at a map of the US where each state is colored according to its percentage of black mayors.

The book is easily the wordiest of those I’ve looked at, when you look at the use of page-space, it’s hard not to notice a 75/25 word-to-picture ratio. And while the clean, sparse visuals of Cole’s American History felt simple, clean, and utilitarian, this atlas felt dry, dull, and sparsely illustrated. On the positive side, however, one thing I appreciated was that the maps of the city in different ages were overlaid on a topographical map, creating a good sense of changing urban geography over the (comparatively) unchanging landscape.

Jerusalem, from "Carta's Historical Atlas of Jerusalem" The Temple Mount, from "Carta's Historical Atlas of Jerusalem"

By far the weakest atlas I looked at was the 1986 Harper Atlas of World History. The book manages to be visually overloaded yet dull– I can’t quite account for how they managed that paradox.

The EYESORE that is the "Harper Atlas of World History"

The bottom quarter or so of the book is a timeline, which reflects an incredibly incongruous view of time, as something that skips back and forth and constantly slows. the same amount of space that accounts for 500 years in the early sections of the book accounts for maybe twenty years toward the end.

Likewise, there are strange lacunae in space and time all over the place. Virtually everything before the Common Era takes place in the middle east, a region that then disappears until the late nineteenth century. Chinese history takes the form of eruptions in the fabric of time, always requiring the reader to jump back five hundred years and get caught up to the present, before panning back to the West for another hundred pages. Native Americans are seen migrating to this hemisphere in the earliest maps, which are more "natural history" than history proper, accounting for the origin of man and the like, and then nothing happens on this hemisphere until 1492. The only maps of Indian lands are those that depict them in retreat from arriving Westerners. Apparently nothing happened outside of Egypt on the continent of Africa until the rise of European colonization.

Maybe "World History" is too broad a topic for a single-volume atlas. I don’t doubt that. But that’s just an unforgivable design flaw, not an excuse. And it’s hardly the only design flaw.

Finally, I’d like to talk about my favorite of the bunch– Derek Hayes’s Historic Atlas of the United States (With Original Maps).

Where the first two atlases I’ve discussed were rather colorless, and the Harper atlas was eye-bleedingly badly designed, Hayes has obviously paid the most attention to design. Each page is colored a muted tone, giving the entire experience of reading this book a more aesthetic feeling. Where the other books used contemporary maps to show historical data, this book uses the maps from the historical moment being discussed, allowing you to look at the impact of cartography and historical actors’ understanding of geography. Competing land claims in Colonial America look, in Cole’s book or the Harper atlas, like simply conflicts over domain. Hayes’s use of historical maps reminds us that part of the issue was that these colonizers didn’t fully understand the land, that they didn’t completely know what they were claiming.

The use of colored pages, the careful attention to legible page layouts, and the use of historical maps all come together to create a very different "reading" experience– one that is closer to the experience of entering a salon-style gallery than the prose-reading style of the first two atlases above, or the visual confusion of the Harpers disaster. The eye scans, goes from map to map, settles here and there. It is a book that rewards browsing, flitting about, leafing through time and space.

This is not to say that the book is all style and no substance, or that it represents an aesthetization of map at the expense of real information. First off, one must repeat the constantly-heard but only occasionally heeded maxim that visual data is still data, and that a preference for visual data over the written word can still be information-rich. But the design also does something quite clever to overcome such logocentric critiques. The captions to accompany the images are much longer and more in-depth than those in any other historical atlas I looked at, and are positioned near, but not simply below, the maps in question.

Thus the experiencing of reading the book takes on an almost fractal quality. One’s eyes at first flit about, finally settling on some map that possesses some eye-catching quality– a "strange attractor" if you will. From there, curiosity piqued, they quickly land on the caption, and are given a contextualization of the image. With that new information, you may go back to the image, and your eyes eventually move onto another nearby image– one that is related in some way. You read the caption to this new map. Eventually, your curiosity may be satisfied, or you may move on to reading the prose essay that is woven throughout the section.

The effect is nonlinear, and quite pleasing. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure atlas, made up of three nested layers of "essays," in a specific hierarchy. First is the visual essay made by the juxtaposition, relations, placement, and contents of the maps. The secondary level is a micro-essay of commentary on the visual data, which takes the form of the maps’ captions. Finally, you have the layer of the prose essay within each section.

A section that embodies this reading experience quite well is the two-page spread on "Seas Where They Ought Not Be." The title of the section is superimposed over a map of California as a large island– a persistent and curious phenomenon I’d definitely noticed on old maps before. From there the eye sails down to the Hudson Bay Company’s map of the continent as almost a large archipelago, then diagonally up to the depiction of the Sea or Bay of the West, a large inland sea that consumes most of the Pacific Northwest. One then begins to wonder what’s going on here, and reads some of the captions, followed by looking at the less visually striking maps, going to their captions to see why they’re included, and finally settling on the interspersed essay for a broader view.

"Seas Where They Ought Not Be"

The fonts of the captions and the prose essay are significantly different enough to easily distinguish between the two, and the subtle cream color of the pages compliments the colors in many of the aged, yellowed maps. Certain images bleed off the page, creating visual interest before allowing the eye to move on to the next image, and also creating a method of cropping to the most interesting elements that has a bit more flare than a simple square crop. The placement of the maps is not a simple grid, thus creating visual interest, but remains simple enough to avoid the confusion engendered by the Harper atlas’s cartographic and pictorial clutter.

I really like this one, if you can’t tell.

Finally, while I’ve limited my discussion to books with "Atlas" in the title, I’d like to mention Whitehall and Kennedy’s Boston: A Topographical History, a book that uses a lot of visual data to compliment a textual interpretation of the changing topography of an urban landscape. It doesn’t fit neatly into the tradition of the Atlas, as the images are secondary to the text, but it integrates both quite well, and is a great example of how geography itself can have a history.

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