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Monday, May 16, 2011

Collecting: Maps and Globes

Before the era of MapQuest,Google Maps, and GPS systems, we used to have to get the old-fashioned paper things and wrestle with them to find out where we were going and calculate how long it would take. There was a whole language of symbols in the "Legend" on the side of the map, and lots of unpredictable accordion folds to contend with. In fact, I wonder if the whole thing doesn't seem rather legendary even now to some modern children.

When I look at old maps, I find myself trying to imagine the time when the whole world had not been mapped. Explorers still found new places, and the imagination was the only limit for what might be found over that shifting horizon. There was a pioneering spirit, and a sense of excitement and discovery that this modern generation is missing. We try to recapture it by looking back at old maps and dreaming, but I fear some of the magic has gone out of it.

My family has this giant Reader's Digest World Atlas from 1963, and it seems like a window into the past, every time I crack it open. There are nations that no longer exist, population numbers that seem incredibly small, a whole section on rocks and minerals and the planets (plus Pluto), and an overall design and color scheme that makes me think of old movies.  I thought I would share a few pictures with you today.

With a title page like this, we know it's going to be good!  It's like fanfare before the adventure movie starts.  Sleek but elegant typography fits so well with the important contents.  I love it!  It gets even more impressive later.

 Turn the page and you get into the front section, full of color photos (probably colorized) and colorful paintings depicting geological information on the oceans, the solar system, and mineralogy.  This isn't just about maps and countries--it's about education.

 I photographed this page about the topography of the Pacific Ocean basin because it makes a weird, abstract art piece, if you don't understand what you are looking at. In fact, I had to stare at it for a few minutes to make my brain correctly interpret what I was looking at.  I think it has that effect because the surrounding continents are a flat orange expanse.

What do you think it looks like?

Here is a map of our solar system, as depicted by an artist.  We hadn't yet launched the space probe that brought us the photos of the planets that many have grown up seeing.

Of course, the most obvious change in our knowledge since this painting was made, is the planet Pluto.  It got downgraded to "giant rock" (ahem, astroid) a few years ago.  I still think the designation of planet is more romantic.

A few pages further on, and we get into the maps, which are usually seen as the most important part to cartography collectors.

The atlas starts with the U.S., for obvious reasons. I decided to share the image of Hawaii because it was a pretty new state at the time, and because I think it provides a little glimpse into the public psyche of the time.

I really think the reason why Pearl Harbor is an inset map is that the attacks were still very much in recent memory in 1963 when this atlas was published.  I haven't seen this phenomenon in more modern atlases.
Here is an example of some countries that have since been renamed--always an interesting phenomenon.  India is still India, of course, but Ceylon and Burma no longer go by those names in any official way.  The colors in this map mark elevations, national and state boundaries, and underwater reefs.  Overall, the color scheme seems grayed-out or neutral, giving it an aged feel. Very nice!

I think this atlas confirms my opinion that maps are not just physical documents of places and topography--they are historical, sociological records.  Maybe that explains the growing popularity of maps in interior design, jewelry, clothing, and more.

For those interested in learning more about maps and map collecting, I found this page of links you might want to check out.

Thanks for reading!  See you next time.

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