On April 20, Winterthur opens a path-breaking exhibition that charts objects and imagery related to America’s historical fascination with maps. Researched and conceived by University of Delaware professor Martin Brückner, the main focus is on the importance of maps in everyday American life, from the 1750s to the 1870s.
This innovative show illustrates how maps were central to the social and commercial activities of Americans. In six sections featuring more than 100 items from Winterthur’s collections—giant wall maps and tiny pocket globes, hefty folio atlases and fragile map handkerchiefs—the exhibition highlights the rise of American maps from rare collectibles to popular objects available to Americans of all backgrounds.
You’ll see how men used maps at home and abroad; how women and children engaged with maps to foster family ties; and how maps became the social glue that would bind strangers into a community during times of change and development. Join special map-related programs held at Winterthur during the exhibit. And let X mark your calendar: April 20 to January 5.
The Big Idea
Throughout history, maps have defined the American experience. From the early 1500s, maps introduced the American continent to European explorers and colonists. After the American Revolution, maps shaped the image of our new nation. During the 19th century, maps documented westward expansion, civil war and the closing of the frontier.
Today we use historical maps to tell the American story to history buffs and movie fans alike. However, what we’re not used to seeing is how the very maps that declared independence or measured the progress of the nation were used day-in and day-out by people who went about their business in spite of social change and political crisis.
Emphasizing everyday habits and material culture, each of the exhibition’s sections presents particular map genres and map users, asking the basic question: How would you—based on education, gender, age, and even race—engage with maps in early America?
Sociable Maps in Parlors & Pubs
Maps were a visible and vital part of social life in early America. They could be found hanging in taverns, shops, town halls and train stations. In private homes maps were more abundant, especially among the affluent and middle class.
Placed in high-traffic areas such as parlors, dining rooms and hallways, maps occupied spaces reserved for rituals of conviviality. In these settings, maps fostered dialogue among friends and strangers, prompting people to ask for directions, engage in polite conversation, test geographic knowledge, play geographical games, or, as illustrated by the Washington family in Edward Savage’s painting (at left), to simply enjoy one another’s company.
Outside American homes, maps were fixtures in public spaces between the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and the Civil War (1860–65). Maps were posted on walls next to newspaper racks and train schedules in taverns, coffee houses and inns. Bookstores and apothecaries sold maps as well as things like geographical playing cards and satirical prints that mocked politicians for their lack of geographical knowledge.
In places of public life—from State Houses to churches—total strangers discovered maps to be the perfect medium for striking up a conversation. Huge county maps offered a common ground for local people to ask about neighbors, road conditions or properties for sale.
Travelers consulted state maps in many different forms, ranging from pocket maps to emigrant manuals. Always at the center of a public space, national maps provided fuel for discussions about politics as patrons traced maps with fingertips while debating their future.
Men and Their Maps
Historically, maps have been considered the province of men. In America it wasn’t monarchs and ministers, but farmers and merchants, who depended on maps to govern and stay connected.
For men, maps were an integral part of private life. Displayed in studies and libraries, maps shaped masculine attitudes toward reading, writing and interior décor. Maps were also essential tools for outdoor activities such as traveling, surveying or landscaping.
Above all, circulating in a culture in which social status was defined by land ownership, property maps—also called surveyor’s plats—were at once useful and symbolic objects illustrating male identity and self-worth.
Maps in a Woman’s World
You might be surprised to learn that American women were deeply invested in maps, mapmaking and map displays. Female academies and mothers who home-schooled their children held competitions in map drawing and map reading. Needlework samplers and embroidered maps were staples of interior decoration in parlors, studies and bedrooms. In public, fashion-minded women used map fans or handkerchiefs as accessories when celebrating military victories or national holidays.
Artists frequently transferred map motifs—especially those showing individual states of the Union—to textiles and ceramic wares, enabling their female users to participate in the nation’s civic affairs.
Significantly, maps offered middle- and working-class women the chance for mobility. A burgeoning map industry enabled women to work from home as map painters.
Maps also provided the kind of “useful entertainment” through which women and children could bond at home and treat themselves to rare moments of carefree “travel.” As diaries and ladies’ magazines of the day tell us, with the aid of maps, women turned into “armchair geographers” who could visit distant relatives or exotic places without physical constraint or moral prejudice.
Baroque and Decorative
In the years before our nation’s independence, colonists supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, including the project of mapping the world. Starting around 1750, two kinds of overview maps were most popular: those showing European imperial possessions and sectional close-up plans of local places. Both types looked decidedly modern. Place names, topographic symbols and grid lines all but erased the century-old tradition of using pictures of wild beasts, human figures, or city views for distinguishing places or peoples. The leaner, more scientific look allowed mapmakers to distance themselves from accusations of misrepresentation and mythmaking.
Yet, pictures were not banished completely from maps; they were simply moved to the map margins and to the elaborately engraved cartouches (decorative elements on a map that show the title, scale and name of the maker).
Cartouches function, however, as much more than reference tools. Using pictures and patterns borrowed from emblem books and symbolic figures like the “American Princess,” the map cartouches by Henry Popple (1733) and Braddock Mead (1774) appeal to the senses, offering a variety of approaches to the map: Is it a scenographic landscape? An ethnographic portrait? An advertisement for transatlantic trade? Or, is it a display of erotic images? Pleasing to behold, cartouches enabled maps to make the leap from practical utility to fashionable entertainment.
Building a New Community
American map culture changed dramatically after the Revolution. From 1783 on, citizens demanded more maps showing North America and the new nation, and entrepreneurs responded in kind. In 1790 alone, more than 90 percent of the maps made in the United States depicted only the nation’s territory.
By 1800, the image of the national map had become an easy-to-recognize logo decorating textile prints, furniture and paintings. A powerful symbol of political unity, it was used as a metaphor in the Federalist Papers (1787-88) and in President Washington’s “Farewell Address” (1796).
Orations, sermons and novels referenced the national map when debating American history or the nation’s character. For many citizens—ranging from statesmen to farmers, ministers to schoolgirls—it was the key for building a new society.
Maps and Masses:
Cartography in the Industrial Age
Westward expansion, immigration and military conflicts made the study of maps a priority in the lives of men, women and children during the antebellum decades and beyond. Major surveying projects and advances in printing technology—such as the invention of lithography and the steam-powered rotary press—turned maps into an industrial product.
Mass production ensured universal access, and maps were transformed into a flexible consumer good. They addressed diverse needs. Thematic maps showing gold fields and election campaigns competed with miniature guides and gigantic overviews.
Long before the Civil War, wall maps had become permanent fixtures in schoolrooms. They even entered window displays in America’s first shopping districts and were feted at commercial fairs, including the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York City’s Crystal Palace.
In a culture that prided itself on attaining universal literacy, maps emerged as the guides to good citizenship. They were crucial for forging unity out of diversity.
By considering this expressed faith, the “Common Destinations” exhibition not only recognizes the historical value of maps but offers a new approach for comprehending their true significance in American history. ~CL
Martin Brückner, Associate Professor in American Literature and Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware, is the author of The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity, which received the Louis Gottschalk Book Prize in 18th-Century Studies. He has published widely on the relationship of cartography and early American culture.
ALL PHOTOS: COURTESY OF WINTERTHUR MUSEUM, GARDEN AND LIBRARY.
Events Related to The Exhibition
~ Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience events will include lectures, a conference, special Members-only experiences, group tours and more. For information, contact 302-888-4600; Winterthur.org.
~ Opening Celebration
Rarely seen examples from the Winterthur collection as well as map-related ceramics and other objects illuminate the importance of maps in everyday lives. Join Director David Roselle for a private viewing and cocktail reception celebrating the exhibition. April 18, 5:30 to 8 p.m.
~ Member Preview Day
Members are invited to view the exhibition prior to its public opening. Guided Gallery Walks throughout the day. Members free, guests with passes. April 19, noon to 7 p.m.
~ Lunchtime Lecture Series
Presentations from professors, historians, conservators and collectors who will discuss exhibition themes. Members free; included with admission. Thursdays in the Rotunda. Apr. 25, May 30, June 27, Sept. 19, Oct. 24, Nov. 21 and Dec. 5. 12:15 p.m.
~ Family Programs
Saturday programs will explore themes of the exhibition, such as the popular Hands on History Cart, an interactive, mobile display that enables guests of all ages to touch, see and learn about objects from the past. Saturdays, 1 to 3 pm.
~ Teacher Workshop
Active teachers are invited for an in-depth look at the exhibition and ideas about how to use maps in the classroom. Reg. req. $15; Members free. Oct. 5, 9:30 a.m to 12:30 p.m.
~ Winterthur Conference
Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience. Lectures, workshops, gallery tours. Oct. 11–12.