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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience


Today, with GPS and MapQuest at our fingertips, maps often function simply as navigational tools, but historically they played a much more diverse role, shaping everything from commercial to social activities. Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience at Winterthur takes you on a journey through two centuries that included colonial wars, nation building, and industrialization. It features selections from Winterthur’s collection of traditional maps in a variety of formats as well as rare map-related objects such as pocket globes, ladies’ fans, and printed handkerchiefs.

The exhibition’s main objective is to illustrate how maps entered everyday practices and how Americans turned to “mappery”—the art and science of mapmaking—in order to build their civic culture. Emphasizing social customs and the materiality of maps, the show’s six sections highlight particular genres in relation to map users and ask the question: How would you—based on your education, gender, age, and even race—have engaged with maps in early America?

In a culture that prided itself on attaining universal literacy, maps emerged as the guides to good citizenship from the 1790s onward. Iconic American voices—from George Washington and Noah Webster to Jared Sparks and Ralph Waldo Emerson—considered maps to be crucial for forging unity out of diversity. By looking seriously at this expressed faith, the exhibition not only recognizes the historical value of maps but offers a new approach for comprehending their true significance in American history.

A Map of the British Empire in America (with detail), drawn by Henry Popple, engraved by William Henry Toms & R. W. Seale, London, England, 1733. Etching with burin work on laid paper. Museum purchase (1973.288.1, .2a-t).
Map content was important, but it was the format—size, color, and pictures—that caught people’s attention and turned maps into attractive objects. The largest and perhaps most spectacular one made in the 1700s illustrates the ways in which maps entered American culture. Widely criticized in its own day for misrepresenting the continent’s geography, the Popple map was nevertheless acquired by public institutions and private citizens. When John Adams saw the map in the Pennsylvania State House in 1776, he wrote to his wife, Abigail: “It is the largest I ever saw.” Central to the map was the cartouche, the decorative element on a map that shows the title, scale, and name of the maker. It functions, however, as much more than a reference tool. Using pictures and patterns, the cartouche on the Popple map appeals 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.

Section I: Sociable Maps: Parlors and Pubs

Edward Savage (1761–1817), The Washington Family, ca. 1798–1805. Oil on panel, 18¼ x 24½ inches. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1961.708).

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 they 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 such settings, they 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, to simply enjoy one another’s company. In this family portrait, George Washington poses with the plan of the District of Columbia. Originally painted on a nine-feet-wide canvas to show “The President and Family, the full size of life,” the map underscores Washington’s symbolic status and his commitment to the nation’s new capital. Spread across the table like a tablecloth, it also tells a second story. As the family studies and touches the map, it becomes the material link connecting George Washington to his wife, Martha Custis, and his step-grandchildren, Eleanor and George.

Pocket globe by Holbrooks Apparatus Manufacturing Co., Wethersfield, Conn., 1830–1859. Line etching with watercolor on paper and wood. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1967.522).

Pocket-size globes were novelty objects from the 1700s to the mid-1800s. Measuring three to five inches in diameter, they fulfilled social rather than practical functions since their size made accurate calculations impossible. Initially a status symbol for gentlemen, pocket globes eventually became an educational toy for children. When painted with references to historic voyages or battle sites, they served as patriotic objects celebrating national identity. Considering that in 1855 alone the Ohio State Commissioner purchased 11,987 globes made by the Holbrooks Company, public schools and their pupils became some of the primary distributors of maps.

Section II: Indoors & Outdoors: Men and Their Maps

Land survey of New Castle County, drawn by Isaac Stevenson, New Castle County, Del., 1803. Ink and watercolor on laid paper, 16 x 13 inches. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1957.642a,b).

The final product of a land survey was a rudimentary map called a plat. It usually consisted of a single sheet bearing the outline of the land and an account of the directions and measurements. Beginning with the early 1700s, such plats emerged as an important tool for assessing and recording property values, taxes, and rents across the former colonies and future states. Because plats served as proof of property and as a form of estate map (delineating residential areas, arable land, woods, and wasteland), they quickly became a standard feature of the American economy. They were so popular that Benjamin Franklin compared them in 1729 to paper money, calling them “coined land.”
Map of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia, drawn by John Reed, engraved by James Smithers, printed by Thomas Man, Philadelphia, Pa., 1774–1786. Line engraving on linen, 30½ x 60 inches. Museum purchase (1961.238).

In America it wasn’t monarchs and ministers but farmers and merchants who depended on maps to govern and stay connected. Displayed in studies and libraries, maps shaped masculine attitudes toward reading, writing, and interior décor. They were also essential tools for outdoor activities such as travel, surveying, or landscaping. Above all, circulating in a culture in which social status was defined by land ownership, maps were symbolic objects illustrating one’s wealth and rank. Designed for Philadelphia residents, John Reed’s map combined usefulness with art. The six sheets show the city and its suburbs, including the surveyed lots of undeveloped land in the northern “liberties.” Printed on linen rather than paper, the map provided a panoramic directory that served merchants, tax collectors, and real estate agents. The decorative cartouche and engraved views of the Alms House, Pennsylvania Hospital, and State House associated the map with popular prints of the time.

Section III: Maps in a Woman’s World

Plan of the City of Washington, worked by Elizabeth Graham, Baltimore, Md., 1800–1803. Silk embroidery on linen, 24 x 11¾ inches. Gift of Ruth McClaine and Family (2008.57).

Early 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. When she was thirteen years old, Elizabeth Graham embroidered a copy of The Plan of the City of Washington, originally designed by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 and engraved by James Thackara and John Vallance in 1792. Her sampler gives testimony to the varied nature of map reproduction. By embellishing her map with embroidered and painted oval cartouches showing George Washington and the figures of Justice, Hope, and Liberty, young Elizabeth combined patriotic themes with the decorative arts. The addition of sprays of flowers and vines to each cartouche further demonstrates her extraordinary needlework skills and patience.

Section IV: Before the Revolution: Science, Pictures, and Baroque Maps

A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England, probably drawn by Braddock Mead, published by Thomas Jefferys, London, England, 1774. Etching and engraving with watercolor on wove paper, 21½ x 40 inches. Museum purchase (1974.169).

In the decades before independence, colonists supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, including the project of mapping the world. As a result of new scientific and commercial surveys, starting around 1750 two kinds of overview maps were most popular: those showing European imperial possessions and those showing sectional 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 images of monsters or scenic 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; they were simply relegated to the map margins. Thomas Jefferys’ map of New England demonstrates how craft and taste transformed maps into a scientific tool and ornamental picture. The abstract technical look contrasts with the ornamental cartouche, which shows one of the scenes defining American history: the Pilgrims making landfall in 1620. By populating the cartouche with a cast of characters consisting of English men and women, a Native American, and the figure of Liberty, the map balances its factual look with eighteenth-century iconographies imagining the history of contact and conquest.

L’Amérique, Jean Lattré, Paris, France, 1779–1780.
Engraving with watercolor on paper, pasteboard, wood, brass
15¾ x 9½ inches. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1965.2116).

During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), colonial interest in geography resulted in the first major increase in American map production and consumption. Philadelphia mapmaker John Evans mastered the art of merchandizing by offering his maps on different materials (paper, calico, and silk) and in different formats (wall map, pocket map, and book insert). Between 1750 and 1775, colonial newspapers advertised maps mostly along with goods associated with literacy and refinement. As rare as it is unique, this adaptation of a map into a fashionable fan is only one example of the vast crossover appeal maps had in the 1700s and 1800s. True connoisseurs could find maps transferred to parlor screens, window shades, porcelain figurines, ceramics and earthenware, gloves, and neckties. Often serving no immediate cartographic purpose, such objects are today called “cartifacts.”
Section V: The National Map, 1784-1815

The United States of America Laid Down From the Best Authorities, Agreeable to the Peace of 1783, published by John Wallis, London, England, 1783. Etching with burin work and watercolor on laid paper, 20½ x 23 inches. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1968.517a,b).

Jug, England; 1790–1810. Lead-glazed earthenware. 1958.1193 Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont.

This 1783 map by John Wallis was one of the first published in Europe to recognize the new nation’s independence. It connected with American citizens on three levels: offering visual proof that the nation was real; linking the nation’s outline to the symbol of the American flag; and introducing two national heroes into the iconography of eighteenth-century cartouches. Using the likenesses of George Washington (paired with the figure of Liberty) and Benjamin Franklin (paired with Wisdom and Justice), the Wallis cartouche quickly became a model for innovative transfer prints. Everyday objects such as milk jugs and scarves presented a combination of the nation’s map and the Wallis cartouche in celebration of American independence.

Section VI: Maps and the Masses: Cartography in the Industrial Age

Colton’s Atlas of America, George Woolworth Colton, New York, N.Y.: J. H. Colton, 1856. Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library (G1100 C72PF).

Westward expansion, immigration, and military conflicts made the study of maps a priority 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. School and thematic maps showing gold fields and election campaigns competed with miniature guides and gigantic overviews. Called the “most beautiful atlas made in the United States” during the 1800s, Colton’s Atlas of America was a rare commercial edition. Half of the publication consists of advertisements promoting businesses in North America, with special emphasis on Philadelphia. Heavily illustrated by elaborate wood engravings and lithographs, the ads depict manufactured goods, storefronts, factory halls, and foundries. To ensure the prominence of the atlas, Colton made the unusual investment of sending free copies to the country’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.”

Letterhead, drawn by Charles Magnus, New York, N.Y., ca. 1855. Lithograph, 4 x 5½ inches. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library (94x70.2).
The growth of the transport, tourist, and communication industries in nineteenth-century America affected the design of maps. Those made for overland travelers up to the 1840s gave equal emphasis to roads, rail, and waterways. As railroads came to dominate the travel landscape, however, roads and canals disappeared from the maps. Catering to the needs of coach, rail, or steamship promoters, map publishers developed a cartographic style that contorted geography and scale in order to reflect a company’s interests but also take into account the travelers’ desire for identifying their location. While travel maps were conceived as portable objects ranging from the colored foldout pocket map to the schematic shopping guide, city plans printed on envelopes or letterhead playfully reminded the reader that maps were essential not only for transportation but personal communication.

The exhibition is on view in the Winterthur Galleries, Winterthur Museum, April 20, 2013–January 5, 2014, and is presented by DuPont and M&T Bank with support in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and additional support from Potter, Anderson & Corroon LLP and the Office of the Provost, University of Delaware. For more information about the exhibition and the conference “Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience” at Winterthur, October 11–12, 2013, call 800.448.3883 or visit

Dr. Martin Brückner is associate professor in American Literature and Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware and is guest curator of the exhibition.