Some Maps Scream; Others Whisper

6/16/2011 Uncategorized


Tim’s earlier post about the exhibit of pre-civil war maps reminded me of a recent entry in the NYTimes Disunion series, also about famous maps of the era.  This one of Virginia, prepared by the US Coast Survey in 1861, was one of the first maps to show census information spatially; in this case, the visualization of the proportion of slave populations by county threw into sharp relief the diverging political-economic interests of the two halves of the state, expediting, as the article argues, their eventual separation.

Of course, the idea of mapping as an ideologically-driven pratice is not new, but the stark, bully-behind-the-pulpit tone of the Virginia maps must have been a real shock to the 1860s public who had hitherto thought of cartography as a genteel, politically naive art.  That is not to say that the latter is necessarily less effective.  As Tim’s Lowell vs. Baton Rouge example shows, the more ostensibly naive maps does take on complex meanings on the sly, either in hindsight or (as in our case) in juxtaposition.  Indeed, the pleasure of these maps is often the reward they offer to the patient, trained eye.

Hitting the right didactic clarity vs. nuance quotient has been a big preoccupation in our recent mapping work.  While a lot of contemporary mapping/information design veers far to the nuance end of the spectrum and becomes painfully cutesy and pointless (“I see you’ve mapped cupcake consumption by zip code in the whole country–cool story bro!“), there are others whose work offers, however inconsistenly, meandering pleasure and legibility of idea in equal measure.

Back to the Virginia maps–in September 1861, after West Virginia’s sessession from Virginia was all but accomplished, the same map was re-issued with a satisfyingly dark line drawn between the two halves: a cartographic happy ending.