Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wall maps

Since the earliest days of civilization, maps have been useful items which have been created in many different formats. From the earliest ephemeral maps drawn in the dirt, on papyrus or constructed from sticks, to the more permanent maps engraved in clay or stone, maps later appeared on metal plates, made up of tiles, drawn on vellum and paper and finally, beginning in the fifteenth century, printed on paper. It was this last format which proved to be the most affordable and practical. However, even within the range of printed maps on paper, maps appeared in many different formats. The most common that survive to today are those which were issued inside books or atlases, but others were produced which were separate broadside maps, folding saddle-bag and pocket maps, and wall maps. In this blog I will take a look at wall maps.

As maps were usually created to serve practical purposes, it made sense to produce maps which could be examined conveniently by a number of people. The best format for this use was the the large format wall map. By mounting a map onto a wall, one could allow viewers, several at one time, to easily study a map of quite large size. These wall maps were usually comprised of several sheets of paper mounted together on a backing fabric and then suspended from rods and hung on the wall. Often, especially in the nineteenth century, the maps were varnished to protect the surface from fingers, insects, smoke and other damage.

These maps first seem to have appeared in the seventeenth century and they were fairly common in the homes and workplaces of the wealthy Dutch, as demonstrated by some of Vermeer's famous paintings. The maps were likely used in the libraries or offices of the wealthy and nobility throughout Europe in that and the following century, and wall maps also hung in many places in America in the eighteenth century, for instance in the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia.

By the nineteenth century, wall maps were used throughout the United States. They hung in government offices, public meeting places, schools and in some homes. Early on in the century, wall maps showed the expanding country, with its natural features and political divisions, roads, canals and then railroads. As these maps were specifically designed for practical use, and because their large format made careful study of details more likely, map makers were careful to update their maps regularly to keep them as current and accurate as possible. This can be seen by the two examples of S. Augustus Mitchell's "New National Map of the United States" above (the one of the left is 1856 and the one on the right 1862).

It was usually economic factors which drove the creation of these elaborate, large and expensive-to-produce wall maps. As local economies became stronger in the second half of the nineteenth century, local wall maps began to appear more regularly. County maps and city maps were produced of many prosperous communities. These tended to show not only the natural features and transportation nexus of the areas depicted, but also indicated many of the local land owners.

Most of the local wall maps one comes across are from the east coast or mid-west, for not only was this where most map publishers were located, but these regions had dense populations and economic development, making local maps of greater use. It was thus a wonderful surprise when I recently came across a fabulous 1873 wall map of Marin County, California. This map was drawn by F. Whitney and published by A.L. Brancroft of San Francisco. It is a very early and rare example of a wall map from California.

One particularly cool thing about the Marin County map was that on the back of it (it is still on the original backing) was a stamp for the San Francisco firm "W.D. Walkup & Co. Map, Chart & Card Mounters." I have never seen a "map mounters" label from anywhere, much less San Francisco. My guess is that most of the work for Walkup & Co. was for sailing charts as these were universally backed onto linen so they could be easily handled and rolled for storage. The "cards" which the label refers to are probably advertising cards, like those mentioned in the previous blog on Philadelphia prints.

This map is particularly rare, but all nineteenth century wall maps are rare. These maps were, as I have said, generally hung in public spaces intended for general use. This led to much "handling" which would naturally cause them to deteriorate. Also, hanging in the open made them subject to sun, moisture and insects, all of which would take their toll. Also the varnish typically used on the front of the maps and the glue used to attach the paper to the linen backing caused these maps to deteriorate over time. Finally, when these maps became out of date, they were often rolled and left in a corner or on the floor, where they could get mishandled or have water drip on them. It is rare to find nineteenth century wall maps at all, but when one does find them they tend to have flaking of the surface and stains, sometimes quite extensive.

Unfortunately, it is a considerable job to fix these maps. The varnish needs to be removed, the map lifted from the old backing, the paper conserved, and then put back down--often with the sections having to be pieced together--onto new linen. This makes the whole process expensive and so many of these maps are not restored. I remember back in the 1980s seeing a large pile of rolled wall maps in a major map library. The maps were falling apart more and more each year because there were no funds available to fix them. Luckily, the values of these maps have gone up enough in the last decade or so that now it makes more sense for owners or map sellers to conserve the maps.

I think wall maps are some of the most interesting antique maps of all. They are fascinating to study, often highly decorative, and one of the best ways for us to see our past through our ancestor's eyes.


  1. We have all probably seen and used wall maps in school or for business purposes, but their history and use is quite fascinating!

  2. It is very interesting how maps document history as well as the increase of knowledge.