Painting a picture with pictorial mapping

Jamie Stevenson
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E" E

Modern maps are all about practicality -- offering users the information needed to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible. This, however, wasn't always the case, with pictorial maps once mixing pop culture and map-making to offer a more colourful look at cartography.

We spoke with Stephen Hornsby, author of Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps and professor of Geography at the University of Maine, who told us more about the book and how he first became interested in the colourful world of pictorial mapping.

He says, "When I was a child, we had a pictorial map by Macdonald Gill, the English graphic artist, in our house. When I went to school and studied Geography, we were always looking at more scientific types of mapping, and so Gill's pictorial map left a lasting impression."

It was years later when, after a lengthy project (creating a historical atlas of Maine), that Stephen decided to revisit pictorial maps. He explains:

"I was looking at tourist maps in the 20th century, and several of them were pictorial. I started thinking about how this information was portrayed pictorially. I did some research and realised that there's hardly any academic literature concerning pictorial maps, and so decided to work on this book."

J. Scheuerle, Recreational Map of Glacier National Park, Montana, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta (circa 1927)

A picture of the past

So where did pictorial maps originate? According to Stephen, they started in medieval times -- the mappa mundi, for example -- and were rife throughout the 16th-18th century. While pictorial mapping died out as society became more scientifically enlightened, the form had a resurgence in the 20th century.

Stephen says: "The modern era of pictorial maps really begins with Macdonald Gill and his famous Wonderground map. When researching the book, however, I soon realised that the greatest development of the genre was in the U.S. In the U.K, there were only a few practitioners, while in the United States, there were hundreds of artists producing pictorial maps."

The reason for this, according to Stephen, was the explosion and dominance of American pop culture. From the 1920s onwards, there were a number of cultural signifiers that really sparked pictorial mapping's growth, from advertising, to the birth of Hollywood, to the changing face of popular music.

"You can see that, after the 1920s, no other country in the world was producing as many instances of pictorial cartography," adds Stephen. "In the early 1930s, even Walt Disney was producing popular, pictorial maps."

.S. Hammack, "Greater!" Los Angeles and the Rest of the United States as See Through the Sun-Kissed Glasses of a Los Angeleno (1939)

Picture perfect

So what is it exactly that pictorial maps convey? Stephen explains:

"When you think of a pictorial map you might think of something childlike, but this certainly wasn't always the case. Instead, they could be used to convey things like emotion, memory, history. They can actually show the richness of an environment, rather than only its layout."

"They used to be used for everything: from advertising commercial products, to being produced in schools and libraries. Some used humour to sell products. There was once a great variety of pictorial maps, for all sorts of reasons."

For Stephen, the highlights of American pictorial mapping include one that shows Manhattan from a birds' eye view. The work, by Charles Farrow, was produced in 1926.

Stephen says, "The view is askew, very colourful, and really captures the roaring '20s."

"Another of my favourites is a map of the San Francisco bay area. It's very stylised, with bright colours, and is also really quite large."

Michael Baltekal-Goodman and Eugene Neuhaus, A Map of Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda (circa 1930s)

Fading ink

Given how popular this style of cartography once was, it's easy to wonder why it has faded from public view. Changing times played their part, explains Stephen:

"The golden age of pictorial mapping was in the late 1920s and through the 1930s -- in-fact, there were wonderful pictorials during the second world war. By the 60s, however, the genre had played out. Photography in advertising had taken over, and the first wave of graphic artists had passed away."

While this may suggest that pictorial maps are gone for good, Stephen feels that there has been something of a resurgence over the past few years. So why is this the case? He says:

"Much like when pictorial mapping hit the mainstream in the early 20th century, maps have now become very standardised and objective. Then, it was paper maps, but now it's digital. Digital mapping is everywhere, but is impersonal and only offers practical uses. Digital maps don't give you a sense of history or memory."

"Artists react to this absence," Stephen concludes. "And are doing something about it. Again."

Are you interested in pictorial mapping? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Topics: Cartography, Features, Weekend reads

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