WINTERTHUR, DEL. — Maps have historically been a source of fascination all over the world. In the New World early on they were crucial elements in the American experience, serving as a social tool that helped bind a young nation together.
Over the years, maps have inspired and guided our travels, expanded our minds, chronicled civilizations, evoked the past, encompassed the present and pointed the way to the future. As aviator/author Beryl Markham once wrote, “A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not…I am the earth in the palm of your hand.’”
A revelatory exhibition, “Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience,” at Winterthur through January 5, offers a fresh take on maps. Organized by guest curator Martin Bruckner, University of Delaware associate professor in American literature and material culture studies, it focuses on the importance of maps in everyday American life, from the mid-Eighteenth Century to the late Nineteenth Century. Whereas previous scholarship has concentrated primarily on prominent mapmakers or decorative aspects of maps, Bruckner says he has zeroed in on the “social life of maps.”
The 100-object display is drawn almost entirely from Winterthur’s holdings, most of which have been rarely, if ever, exhibited. They were assembled primarily by Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969), the prescient and keen-eyed collector/genius behind Winterthur. The show takes visitors on a journey through colonial wars, the American Revolution, the era of Manifest Destiny, the Civil War and various landmarks in nation building. Eventually maps became part of our day-to-day lives and material culture, evolving from rare collectibles to ubiquitous objects.
As curator Bruckner says, “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.”
Featured are selections from Winterthur’s extensive trove of traditional maps on paper, as well as map-related objects, including paintings, ceramics, globes, puzzles, powder horns, printed handkerchiefs and playing cards. They are organized to document the American experience through six themes. “Emphasizing everyday habits and material culture,” observes Bruckner, “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?”
Several venerable maps of America, dating to the Eighteenth Century, document the importance not only of content, but format — size, color and pictures — designed to catch peoples’ eyes and make maps attractive collectibles. Although widely criticized in its day for inaccurately depicting the New World, the so-called Popple map of 1733, titled “A Map of the British Empire in America,” was acquired by public institutions and prominent individuals, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. In 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail that the Popple map in the Pennsylvania State House was the “largest I ever saw.”
The first section, “Sociable Maps: Parlors and Pubs,” presents early American maps that were hung in such public sites as taverns, shops and town halls, as well as middle- and upper-class homes. Their visibility generated dialogue among family, friends and strangers.
On display is “A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia,” a popular 1775 wall map published in London and noted for its geographic accuracy and crisp engraving style. Its cartouche shows merchants celebrating the sale of tobacco gathered by slaves, thus serving as a constant reminder of that abhorrent system in American society.
Of particular interest is a Nineteenth Century pocket globe from Connecticut, a small, wooden novelty item from the 1700s to the mid-1800s. Originally a status symbol for gentlemen, they became both patriotic objects (when painted with references to historic voyages or battle sites) and an educational toy for children.
In the late Eighteenth Century, when social status was defined by land ownership, maps became illustrations of one’s wealth and rank. A map drawn by John Reed around 1780 shows Philadelphia and its suburbs, including undeveloped land. It served as a panoramic directory for merchants, tax collectors, real estate agents and developers.
The section called “Indoors and Outdoors: Men and Their Maps” includes a rudimentary map or plat of New Castle County, Del., dating to 1803. Such land surveys became an integral part of local economies, important tools for land assessing and recording property values, taxes and rents. They also influenced reading and writing activities, and since land ownership was a mark of social status, maps were not only useful navigational tools, but male status symbols. As early as 1729, comparing plats to paper money, Franklin dubbed them “coined land.”
“Upstairs, Downstairs: Maps in a Woman’s World” underscores the importance of maps to women in their daily lives and creative activities. Maps served as teaching tools for home-schooled children, functioned as elegant accessories, such as fans and handkerchiefs, and needlework samplers and embroidered maps were popular items for interior decorating. Many women worked from home as map painters.
An example of the crossover potential of maps in colonial days is a unique adaptation of a map into a fashionable lady’s fan made in France, 1779–1780. Maps were also transferred to window shades, parlor screens, porcelain objects, ceramics and earthenware, powder horns, gloves, scarves, neckties and even milk jugs. Since most of these items served no real cartographic purpose, they are called today “cartifacts.”
Another handsome example is a 1783 map on a lead-glazed earthenware pitcher made in Europe that recognized American independence by linking the geographic delineation of the United States with likenesses of Washington paired with Lady Liberty and Franklin linked to Justice and Wisdom. It was, says Bruckner, a “combination of the nation’s map and…a cartouche in celebration of American independence.”
A highlight is a silk-embroidered-on-linen “The Plan of the City of Washington,” dated 1792, by 13-year-old Elizabeth Graham. Replete with flowery, oval cartouches showing George Washington and figures of Hope, Justice and Liberty, it combines patriotic themes and decorative arts.
Cartouches — decorative elements on a map showing its title and scale and the name of its maker — served not only as reference tools, but suggested varied approaches to the map. “Pleasing to behold,” says Bruckner, “cartouches enabled maps to make the leap from practical utility to fashionable entertainment.”
The section titled “Before the Revolution: Sciences, Pictures and Antique Maps” includes one of the oldest items in the exhibition, “A New Map of the World from the Latest Observations,” published in London, 1721–1740, a line engraving with watercolor on laid paper. It shows the New World in one circular image and the Old World in the other, each surrounded by a variety of allegorical and symbolic figures.
“A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia,” was first drawn in 1851 by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, a surveyor and father of America’s third president, for citizens of that colony. The sample on display, engraved in London in 1775, is straightforward and unembellished, except for its cartouche.
Several objects demonstrate how new scientific and commercial surveys, starting around 1750, launched overview maps that either depicted European overseas possessions or showed sectional plans of local places. “Both types looked decidedly modern,” says Bruckner, citing the use of place names, topographical symbols and grid lines. “The leaner, more scientific look allowed mapmakers to distance themselves from accusations of misrepresentation and mythmaking,” observes Bruckner.
“A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England,” 1774, combines scientific precision with an ornamental cartouche showing the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620. That picture enables the map to balance “its factual look with Eighteenth Century iconographies imaging the history of contact and conquest,” notes Bruckner.
The ways in which the role of maps changed markedly after the Revolutionary War is explored in “The National Map: 1784–1815.” With their freedom secured, Americans wanted maps focused on North America and the new nation; by 1790, more than 90 percent of maps made in the United States depicted only the nation’s territory. After years of political uncertainty and warfare, these maps helped build a sense of unity in the young nation.
A diminutive “Popple Map” in the form of a globe sampler made of blue silk and wood was embroidered by a Pennsylvania woman around 1815. It outlines continents, countries and oceans in ink, while the equator and Arctic Circle are stitched in white silk and the tropics in red silk.
“Maps and Masses: Cartography in the Industrial Age,” the last section, examines the manner in which the development of machine-made paper and lithography in the 1830s made maps a highly diverse commodity tailored to respond to the needs of national and international audiences. Mass production made map ownership nearly universal. As maps became an industrial product, they addressed thematic needs, such as charts of gold fields.
During the run-up to the Civil War, westward expansion, immigration, urbanization and military conflicts made the study of maps a high priority for many. For the first time, maps were used in window displays designed to attract shoppers and were exhibited at national and international fairs.
Colton’s Atlas of America, first published around midcentury, was filled with maps and advertisements promoting North American businesses. With elaborate wood engravings and lithographs, it was called the “most beautiful atlas made in the United States.” To spread the word, the publisher sent free copies to the nation’s major hotels, stores and shipping companies on the condition that they “place this valuable work in some convenient place in your House, Steamer or Ship, accessible to your patrons.”
In the Nineteenth Century, as railroads came to dominate the travel landscape, the contents of domestic maps changed from placing equal emphasis on roads, railways and waterways to stressing rails. Responding to the needs of coach, rail or steamship promoters, map publishers developed a cartographic style that distorted geography and scale in order to reflect a company’s interests — and travelers’ desire to identify their location.
Well before midcentury, wall maps were routinely displayed in schoolrooms, serving as teaching tools. “In a culture that prided itself on attaining universal literacy, maps emerged as the guides to good citizenship,” observes Bruckner. “They were crucial for forging unity out of diversity.”
For many visitors, “Common Destinations” offers fresh insights into a subject little known to the general public. Careful consideration of the objects on view underscores not only their historical value, but provides a new approach to appreciating the significance of maps in American history.
A conference at Winterthur about the map exhibition, October 11–12, will feature lectures, workshops and gallery tours. Winterthur Galleries, Winterthur Museum is at 5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52). For information, 800-448-3883 or www.winterthur.org.