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Historical Atlas

May 11, 2001

I have a distorted sense of the world that grew out of my earliest misalignment of the east coast and, in particular, Long Island. As a kid, my mental compass put the coast of Long Island extending north from Staten Island where I lived. It is mostly east.

So I’ve been slightly off all of my life. About 90 degrees. I’ve distorted the rest of America, too. It’s odd, since I loved maps as a kid. I loved to draw maps of fictional lands, as well as real places. Every time I go back to an atlas, though, I get realigned, and surprised.

Most recently, I was reminded that San Francisco is further south than Denver, and that Denver is in line with Baltimore. I stared at the map in disbelief, the way I do when the door to a favorite restaurant is locked, and I tug on the handle and stare at the closed sign, tug again.

This happened when I was looking through some historical atlases we just received at the library. They are part of the series: Religion in America, the American South, Women in America, Presidential Elections, and the American Railroad. These five are currently available. More are planned. You may check them out.

Good maps are a pleasure to look at, fascinating to decode, and extremely efficient at packing information into a page. Or a few pages. A brief succession of maps in the “American Railroads” atlas shows the spectacular growth of railroads from a few lines in the 1830s to a fabulous spider’s web covering the entire country in the 1890s.

One interesting map shows in color all the regions more than 25 miles from a railroad in 1963. It is only a small part of the nation, most of it in the West. A rather sad graph looks like the plot of a dot-com stock price — after a healthy peak in total rail miles, almost every state shows a precipitous decline to the present.

The “Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections” is equally fascinating. The statistics and charts cover every presidential election our country has had. If you’re still upset about the electoral vote count last November, keep in mind that until the 1824 election, there was no popular vote count at all.

The “Historical Atlas of the American South” is a rich one. It maps such things as early settlement, distribution of slave population, secession votes by county, development of cotton, Underground Railroad, industrialization and urbanization, religion, the rise of the Sun Belt.

The “Historical Atlas of Women in America” is a cultural atlas as well as an historical one. There are maps of the woman’s place in the home, from tenements to plantations. Maps show the development of women’s participation in unions, careers, westward movement, suffrage. Maps and graphs detail the history of women in politics and economics.

This is good stuff. An interesting chapter in the “Historical Atlas of Religion in America” maps the development and spread of “post-contact religions” among Native Americans. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but of course the decimation of indigenous communities and cultures would bring a religious response.

It is intriguing to see the change in the religious composition of America mapped, from Colonial America to the present.

These atlases appeal for the same reasons genealogical charts appeal. They map how we got here. The past is rich; the future uncertain. It’s comforting to look back.


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One Comment
  1. Vicky permalink

    Dear Jeff:

    Do you have any idea what Taiwan looks like in map? Many Taiwanese like to say that it looks like a yam, and enjoy comparing themselves to a down-to-earth yam. Funny?!

    I have an improvised haiku and would like to share it with everybody, especially for those people from Taiwan. Here it is —

    One of Nostalgia

    Sweet yam in my mouth
    A map of Taiwan pops up
    Overwhelming me


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