Thursday, August 6, 2009

The tales of maps

Another posting from Kelli Lucas:

Chris has done a great job in other posts on this blog of talking about what makes a map valuable from a connoisseur's perspective. But for a beginning collector (whether "young" or not), these things might only make a difference if the map is valuable from a personal perspective. Or for a person looking to give a map as a gift, it's sometimes difficult to know what will make a map interesting and special to the recipient. What will make the purchased object something that will be enjoyed over the years, hung on the wall and appreciated?

When a person comes in with an interest in antique maps, he or she is often ready to take a map home - but has no idea which one to pick! With maps of locations all over the world and across centuries, it's sometimes difficult to narrow a wide selection like ours to one single map. It's important to understand the things that Chris has explained in other blogs: how to understand why one map is worth $500 and another is worth $50 will make spending either amount more satisfying. But beyond objective, connoisseurial criteria, the choice often comes down to one single, defining factor: storytelling.

In my experience helping our customers in the shop and at antiques shows, very often, the choice comes down to the story. In fact, my favorite part of working at the Philadelphia Print Shop has always been the tales people tell when they look at antique prints and maps. I'm not speaking metaphorically or symbolically: people literally start recounting memories of childhood vacations when they see maps of the Grand Canyon, or of college dormitories when they see maps of Philadelphia. A young woman buying a map for her husband will excitedly pull out a map of the county where he grew up and point out to me the township where he went to elementary school, tracing the road where he lived, pointing out where her in-laws still own the same house. Or a grandfather visiting our shop for the first time might stumble on a map of North Carolina in the 1870s that shows precisely the town where, according to his genealogical research, his ancestors farmed after the Civil War, and with the map in hand, he will unfold his family's tale for me. Maps act like narrative prompts, helping people string together facts about themselves and their loved ones.

This is where it gets fun: if you're looking for a map for yourself or for a loved one, you can start to think through your (or their) stories. Think about where you (or your loved one) have grown up, vacationed, or attended school. Maybe you want a map of a place you've always wished to see (there are lots of antique maps that cost substantially less than a plane ticket and hotel!). Maybe you and your best friend have talked for years about the tour you'll take of the French countryside, or of the adventure you'd love to have in the Andes Mountains. Do you love Japanese food? Then how about a map of Japan to hang in your dining room? Or perhaps you are especially fond of wines of 's Mosel region. There are antique maps of that, too! One of the best parties I ever hosted ended wonderfully with an atlas spread out in the living room as my guests took turns finding maps of places they had visited on study-abroad trips in college. I could have made a birthday-gift list for a half-dozen friends just based on the conversations from that night!

To offer examples (and as an excuse to introduce some of our staff here at the Philadelphia Print Shop), I asked my co-workers to pick maps of important, story-worthy places in their lives... This story comes from David T. Moore, assistant to the partners.

If you look at the highest magnification of the William Scull map of Pennsylvania (London, 1775), you can barely see (illegible on the web, very clear on the actual map!) writing directly above the "B" in Bucks County and just below the section fold. That writing says "Walter McCool's," meaning McCool's tavern. McCool, my 5th great-grandfather, was an Ulster Quaker immigrant, who first had a mill in Bucks County, opening the inn about 1748. By the period of the Revolution he had relocated to Whitemarsh Township in (then) Philadelphia County, now in Montgomery County since it was carved out from Philadelphia in 1784. The tavern has existed off-and-on since then, now known as "McCool's at the Historic Red Lion Inn" in Quakertown.

Thanks, David!

These are the sorts of stories that make antique maps interesting to me - the stories that connect a person to a piece of paper, and to the other people who have connected themselves to that same piece of paper throughout time. And at its core, the study of history is just that: the study of the stories people tell about themselves, the places they've been, and the people and objects they've known there.

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