Roger Kain, professor of humanities at the School of Advanced Study and editor of the History of Cartography’s fifth volume, discusses how this global collaborative project helps us understand maps as cultural documents.

I am composing this post on 26 March 2020, the day I had arranged in happier times to speak about the University of Chicago Press History of Cartography to the SAS Book and Print Initiative seminar series. I look forward to my talk being rescheduled for next academic year and in the meantime this post is a kind of aperitif.

The History of Cartography is a research, editorial, and publishing project that spans many decades. It is collaborative and genuinely world-wide in coverage, and ranges from the earliest known maps made in prehistory to digital mapping of the late 20th century.  The originators, J B Harley and David Woodward, were both UK academics who moved to the US – Harley to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Woodward to the Newberry Library, Chicago following which he took a post at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Woodward and Harley based the History of Cartography Project and from where it still operates.

The History of Cartography was revisionist from its inception. It embraced a catholic definition of ‘map’ – the representation of features (places, people, phenomena, real, abstract or imagined) in their relative or actual spatial locations. This is very different from traditional approaches to map history, which saw objects as maps only if drawn to a fixed linear scale. The associated traditional history of cartography was characterised by both a search for ‘firsts’ – the earliest maps of particular genres – and followed a developmental, progressivist approach, believing that over time maps were made with increasing scientific accuracy. The History of Cartography, on the other hand, is concerned as much with why people made and used maps as with how they made and reproduced them.

Maps for the History are considered cultural documents – they contain information, they store knowledge, and, critically, they are children of the particular social, economic, and political contexts when they were made and first used. Maps have an obvious role for depicting the physical form of the land, for wayfinding and as records of what once was but, if they are considered as cultural products, they can be seen to do much, much more. They have been used from medieval times by individuals and institutions for the management of rural and urban properties, by states to assess and apportion taxes based on land, in military operations on both land and sea, to assist with administrative tasks, in education, and as displays of the wealth and power of the individuals, institutions or states that commissioned them. In short, the History of Cartography studies the people, societies and cultures that produced and consumed maps as well as the technical issues concerning how maps were made.

Harley and Woodward recruited teams of researchers and editors to produce a set of mainly chronologically-structured volumes. They began to plan the project in 1977, the first volume was published in 1987, and the final one is scheduled to appear in 2024. Sadly both founding editors died tragically early. Matthew Edney, one of the volume editors and a former PhD student at UW-Madison, currently directs the project as principal investigator.  I contributed material to the Renaissance and Enlightenment volumes and am editor of Volume Five, Cartography in the Nineteenth Century. The project has been supported to date by 19 two-year grants from the US National Endowment for the Humanities and, for the nineteenth and twentieth century volumes, by grants from the National Science Foundation.

The 19th century of ‘my’ volume is the long 19th-century, stretching back for some topics to the 1780s and running on likewise into the early years of the 20th century up to World War I. During this century the institutions and practices of maps and mapping became increasingly international. Mapping practices became more uniform. Governments and administrations of Europe’s industrialising states committed significant resources to establish permanent mapping organizations like the United States Geological Survey and the British Ordnance Survey. These helped to sustain territorial control both at home and in overseas empires. The intersections of maps and mapping with scientific inquiry were found in new government programs to gather data about both society and environment, the better to regulate them; this stimulated thematic mapping to visualize and understand characteristics of state territories.

Map consumption continued to expand over this period as economic growth, increased travel and tourism, mass education with prescribed teaching curricula, the introduction of cheaper printing techniques (notably lithography), and the creation of new urban and interurban infrastructures at unprecedented scales all led to more widespread cartographic literacy, the popular use of cartographic images, and the growth of both state and corporate mapmakers. The industrialized spirit of the nineteenth century extended to the aesthetics of map design, influenced by new print technologies and especially the eventual introduction of colour printing.

Cartography in the Nineteenth Century will mirror other volumes of the History in comprising about one million words of essays of varying length by 194 contributors, and one thousand images totalling some 1,600 pages. It will be printed in two large-format 220 x 280mm books, will be available immediately also as an e-book, and after 24 months on full open access.

My talk for the Book and Print Initiative will explore the History of Cartography and my work on the project in further detail. In the meantime, you can find out more about its aims, history and scope on the History of Cartography website.

Roger Kain is professor of humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Cover image: John Colomb and Walter Crane_ Extent of the British Empire in 1886 (1886)