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The Way It Was
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 • Posted April 4, 2013

In the last two columns I have written about a couple of specific types of old maps, those “saddlebag” or pocket maps that fold up into a small book that could be used and yet were protected from abuse and were common with travelers from about 1830 to 1875, and secondly the larger folding maps that “illustrated” books on travel and exploration. Most early maps were published as either a separate reference paper, as part of a full book to serve as visual information, or thirdly as one of many maps bound into an atlas. Atlases and atlas maps are therefore the final source of early maps and deserve some attention of their own.

For the past 150 years the center of most map publishing has been in America, and a large proportion of the maps were initially intended to be part of an atlas. Because they were designed and printed in America, and the United States has been a major world power for most of that time, the atlases most of us are familiar with start with American maps and include a sizable section of state maps and other details of our country. Often the rest of the world is summarized in a few continent and country maps that show only a little change through the years. Most of the state maps published since the Civil War were originally a part of an atlas, and show Texas and the slow but very steady expansion of the settlements into the western part of the state and the inevitable expansion of the county lines that followed. Most of these atlases and maps were produced by a known group of publishers, including names such as Colton, Johnson, Mitchell, Cram and eventually Rand and McNally. These atlas maps are very interesting and are full of information on the settlements and local discoveries, and can pinpoint place names and towns that were new or important in those specific times. These are what most people think of when they first discuss “old” maps of Texas.

For me, the more interesting cartographic images come before America began being known for her maps in the years before the Civil War. Other places and countries were well known in earlier years for their map publishing, and since America was just a “new land” and parts were unexplored or very lightly settled, the maps of the area we now call home were often poorly shown or even left blank. During the period of the American revolution and the next few decades as the new republic expanded to the West there is a slow improvement in the knowledge and visual records of the United States, and the maps included in atlases were showing more detail and settlements. However, in those days the United States was just beginning to establish itself and stretch its boundaries and often the maps show only a part of the country and certainly the emphasis of the atlases was more on Europe and the powerful political countries before America took to the world stage.

It is an interesting exercise in reminding ourselves of our humble beginnings to consider some of the more important maps, such as the Thomas Bradford map of June,1836 that was the very first showing the new state of Texas. However, that map while important in Texas history was only one page, with one page of description and explanation, in a total atlas of about 200 pages with over 120 maps of the rest of the world! Or another example of the early maps of what would become Texas is the map of Mexico from the 1824 atlas of James Wyld that is one out of 45 maps and shows our “lone star state” as nothing more than a relatively insignificant province of the new Republic of Mexico. I have both of these maps on display currently along with each of the entire atlas that includes another copy of the map as a visual example of what I mean about the “humble” beginnings of the land that has become Texas.

Atlases are very interesting for what they show us of the world in a different age, however most of the early ones are prohibitively expensive and rarely available. Therefore, I was thrilled recently to be able to purchase a very early atlas first printed in Europe in 1546. Drawn by a east European scholar by the name of Johann Honter, this atlas is mostly showing the countries of Europe in a crude and very small format. Because this was in the early days of printing as well as map making, the pages are less than 4" x 6" and the portion I bought only included the maps, without any descriptions: however the real “gem” of this atlas is a double page map of the world. These maps were printed from wood blocks and the understandings and knowledge of the world was limited and so the land areas and details are not at all what we have come to expect from a world map. “America” is shown as an oddly shaped island on the western edge of everything with a couple of unidentified islands above. The Nile River flows out of the “mountains of the moon” in southern Africa, India is very oddly shaped and Asia is split by a mountain chain from north to south, and the Mediterranean is “expanded” to include the Black Sea and other water bodies. It is not a very accurate or detailed map, and the entire world has something of a heart shape, which was common in that time. However, it is actually most amazing to even have such a map since this in only about 50 years after Columbus sailed to the New World, and only 100 years after Gutenberg first conceived his printing press. To have a very small atlas that has survived nearly 500 years, and hold it in your hand is to very truly hold a piece of history and get a glimpse into another age.

If I have sparked an interest in you in the atlases of the past or the image of the world from a time before America was a world power or even recognized as a separate nation, please stop by and share some of my “treasures”. This Friday and Saturday is our monthly Art Walk, and I will have on display all of the maps I have discussed and shared in this and other columns for the past month. I would be pleased to visit with you about them at Red Door Antiques on the north side of the Square, so stop by during Art Walk, or any time, and take a few minutes to look at and enjoy maps and views from the past. And remember, the knowledge and concepts we now have were not always so, but with a few reminders and examples we can begin to grasp and enjoy ... the way it was.

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