Envisioning History: A New Take on Brilliant Old Maps

The power of turning data into graphics is a topic this blog has explored on a number of occasions (see “Visualization that Means Something“; “Are You Graphically Impaired?“). Here is another example of bringing numbers to life; in this case, relatively old sets of data. It is the new digital version of the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States: http://dsl.richmond.edu/historicalatlas/.


In 1932, when Charles O. Paullin published his monumental Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, reviewers were overwhelmed by its nearly 700 maps covering seemingly every facet of the country’s social, economic and political life, including maps, then novel, showing county-by-county results for presidential elections going back to the beginning of the Republic.

But the atlas, by its creator’s admission, was missing one thing — motion. “The ideal historical atlas might well be a collection of motion-picture maps,” Paullin’s editor and main collaborator, John K. Wright, wrote in the introduction, “if these could be displayed on the pages of a book without the paraphernalia of projector, reel and screen.”

Historians and everyday Internet time wasters have long since become used to animated maps, covering topics ranging from a four-minute recap of the Civil War to the global distribution of tweets about Beyoncé’s new album. Now, modern bells and whistles have also come to Paullin’s atlas. A souped-up online version has just been released by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, bringing what some historians still consider a work of unsurpassed scope into the age of the iPad.

“Paullin’s maps show ordinary people making a living, moving across the landscape, worshiping at churches, voting in elections,” said Robert K. Nelson, the director of the Digital Scholarship Lab. “They covered so many topics that there’s really something for everyone.”

Paullin’s atlas was hailed in 1932 for the imaginative ways it showed change over time. The new site’s digital enhancements bring that sense of movement to further life, allowing users to pull up the fine-grained data behind many maps (most of which have been georectified, or warped to align accurately with a modern digital map), or just sit back and watch as animation shows, say, the march of women’s suffrage or other social reforms.

“We live in history the way fish live in water,” said Edward L. Ayers, the founder of the Digital Scholarship Lab and a senior consultant on the project. “It’s invisible to us, but a historical atlas can give us a sense of coherence of the larger pattern.”

In the 19th century, maps became “a new kind of tool — not just a way-finding device, a map of what we know, but something that opened up new questions,” said Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver and the author of “Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in 19th-Century America.” Instead of just showing geographical features, works like Francis Walker’s 1874 Statistical Atlas of the United States — the first national atlas anywhere in the world based on census data — layered different kinds of information onto the landscape.

Paullin’s atlas, published nearly 50 years later, was “a culmination,” Ms. Schulten said, of that new statistical cartography. It was also a herculean effort. Dozens of researchers, assembled by the Carnegie Institute, spent nearly 20 years painstakingly culling and plotting out data from census records, newspapers, local archives and other far-flung sources, acknowledged in 145 pages of detailed notes.

There were some 50 historical maps going back to 1492, and more than 600 new maps, beginning with the natural environment and moving on to territorial expansion, settlement patterns, transportation, slavery, the development of political parties, the spread of churches and universities, and shifts in wealth distribution.

Another series of maps, still regularly reproduced in textbooks and on blogs, shows how long it would have taken a traveler to reach any point in the United States from New York City in 1800, 1830, 1857 and 1930.

“It’s so far ahead of its time,” Mr. Ayers said. “It suggests how people experienced geography. You could ask, ‘What would it mean for a family to move to Kansas?’ ”

The digital Paullin is only a prelude to the Richmond group’s next effort: an entirely new digital atlas, to be completed over a decade or so. This “Paullin for the 21st century,” supported with an initial grant of $750,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will update some aspects of the earlier work — Paullin’s treatment of Native Americans, Mr. Nelson said, was “pretty horrible.” It might also spice up some topics that can be, well, a little boring.

One Comment on “Envisioning History: A New Take on Brilliant Old Maps”

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