Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps

With Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps (University of Chicago Press, March 2017), Stephen J. Hornsby makes the case for the pictorial map as a distinct and significant genre of mapmaking that is worthy of study and preservation.

Because pictorial maps were artistic rather than scientific, Hornsby argues, they were ignored as a subject of cartographic study—“treated as ephemera, the flotsam and jetsam of an enormous sea of popular culture.”1 As such they have not been preserved to the same extent as more strictly cartographic maps. (Being printed on cheap acid paper didn’t help.) But as products of popular culture they were distinctive—and ubiquitous. “By World War II,” he writes, “pictorial maps had created a powerful visual image of the United States and were beginning to reimagine the look of the world for a mass consumer audience.”2 They were so prevalent, I suppose, that they were invisible. Taken for granted. It frequently falls to the historian of popular culture to point out that the common and everyday is, in fact, significant. That’s what Hornsby is doing here.

Drawing mainly on the holdings of the Library of Congress’s Geography and Map Division, which served as the final home of pictorial map collections assembled by librarians like Ethel M. Fair and Muriel H. Parry, Hornsby explores the history of the pictorial map genre from the 1920s to the 1960s. Influenced by nineteenth-century advertising and bird’s-eye maps, as well as the work of MacDonald Gill, the illustrators of pictorial maps—Charles H. Owens, Jo Mora, Ernest Dudley Chase, George Annand, Ilonka Karasz, C. Eleanor Hall—created advertisements, posters, brochures, and maps for news organizations. In many ways their work was the infographics of their time; like medieval mappae mundi or early modern maps with sea monsters, pictorial maps were able to impart a good deal of qualitative information that would otherwise be unmappable, and with a distinctive artistic flair.3

Charles Vernon Farrow, A Map of the Wondrous Isle of Manhattan, 1926. Pictorial map, 94 cm × 57 cm, David Rumsey Map Collection.

After fifty-four pages of essay describing and analyzing his subject matter, Hornsby moves on to six sections of plates, beautifully reproduced, organized by theme rather than by date or artist: Maps to Amuse (maps featuring cartoons, maps that exaggerate one state at the expense of the rest); Maps to Instruct; Maps of Place and Region (including city maps that can be seen as the direct successor to bird’s-eye maps, only with a lot more colour and whimsy); Maps of Industry (tourism maps, rail and shipping maps, industrial promotion), Maps of War (where oblique views of the globe came into fashion), and Maps for Postwar America.

That last section highlights an important fact about pictorial maps: they were very much a generational project. Pictorial maps waned as these illustrators retired or passed on and as photography gained traction in commercial art.4 Which highlights Hornsby’s point that pictorial maps were a coherent genre, born out of common influences and the creation of a specific group of people, at a specific moment of time. Picturing America recaptures that whimsical, vibrant, beautiful moment.

For more on Picturing America, see All Over the Map’s profile from last March.

I received a review copy from the publisher.

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  1. Hornsby, Picturing America, p. 2.
  2. Hornsby, Picturing America, p. 1.
  3. Hornsby, Picturing America, pp. 44-45.
  4. Hornsby, Picturing America, p. 243.