When mapmaking was equal parts art and utility

train map

Some have the ability to recall precise swathes of knowledge from their schooling. I am not one of those individuals.

While I can recollect misdeeds, mishaps and the occasional bout of corporate punishment, there are very few specific bits of knowledge I can remember being imparted some 40-plus years after I began elementary school.

One nugget that I do clearly recall involved a second-grade social studies lesson detailing why movable objects such as cars and planes didn’t make the cut when cartographers create maps. They are, of course, impermanent and most likely wouldn’t be in the same place the next day, making them useless to individuals attempting to navigate based on landmarks shown on a map.

Apparently, this is a relatively new concept for mapmakers, as evidenced by the blog Trains in Towns, which highlights steam locomotives shown on old-time maps.

Evidently, detailing train tracks, a permanent landscape feature, wasn’t enough for cartographers of the 19th and early 20th century to demonstrate the existence of rail lines.

Many of the so-called “bird’s-eye” or panoramic maps of the era show steam locomotives chugging along, belching out smoke and pulling cars through towns and cities.

These maps often feature other transient objects, as well, including ships at anchor, horse-drawn carriages, people walking down dusty lanes and even animals frolicking in fields.

I’m partial to the bird’s eye map of Columbia, SC, from 1872, which is on display at the local library. It shows not only trains, but, among other transitory features, horses galloping around a local race track.

The mapmakers of the period were, it would seem, creating works which could serve artistic as well as utilitarian purposes.

(Top: 19th century bird’s-eye map of unidentified river town showing steam locomotive, riverboats and horses pulling carriages. Source: Trains in Towns.)

Advertisements

One thought on “When mapmaking was equal parts art and utility

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s