The Social Life of Maps

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Elizabeth Mosier reports on a talk last Saturday by University of Delaware English professor Martin Brückner. “Using images from the exhibit he curated at Winterthur Museum (viewable online at http://commondestinations.winterthur.org), Brückner traced maps from production to purchase to public display and personal use, as they became fashionable objects in the period before and after the Revolutionary War,” Mosier writes.

In the 18th century, maps were everywhere: advertised with luxury goods in catalogs and with necessities in the newspaper, displayed in taverns and town halls and high-traffic areas in private homes, printed on parlor screens and ceramics and neckties—“cartifacts” serving no cartographic purpose. If political conflict built the market for maps, the cartouche—or decorative map title—refined it, adding beauty to the criteria for determining a map’s value. The brisk business in maps for navigating and decorating redefined what constituted their usefulness, in material and social terms. Owning a map meant economic status, educational achievement, and national identity; showing a map showed you belonged.

This is the “performative function” of maps, to create reality by plotting it.

geographic-revolution

Brückner is the author or editor of several books on the subject of the social history of maps in early America, including The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Early Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (UNC Press, 2006). I should really check his work (and Susan Schulten’s) out; my own graduate work was going to be on the social function of music, so the social function of maps is relevant to my interests for more than one reason. [via]

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.