Monday, May 11, 2015

20th Century Pictorial Maps

Maps have long had a pictorial element to them. Maps can, of course, be fairly “cartographic” in appearance, using lines, dots, contour lines, and other symbols, but for centuries other maps have been more illustratively graphic.

Pictorial images have been scattered about their surface from as early as fifteenth and sixteen century portolan maps, with vignettes of walled cities, to the putti of Dutch seventeenth century maps, to the elaborate title cartouches of the eighteenth century.

Other maps have been themselves pictorial, for the image was designed to look like some object such as a person or creature. The Leo Belgicus maps from the seventeenth century are among the most famous of these, but there are many others were made over the years.

A new type of pictorial map, though, made its appearance about the second decade of the 20th century. These pictorial maps added a pictographic element to the underlying cartographic rendering, adding a visual narrative onto the geographic background. Rather than having small, illustrative images as an adjunct to the main map, the vignettes became much more the heart of the maps.

These maps were produced not so much to present a topographical image, but provide an informative and amusing picture of a place with the cartography providing the stage for the main roles played by the pictorial illustrations. These maps were usually drawn by illustrative artists for commercial or commemorative purposes. They were used to promote tourism, advertise products or companies, illustrate news events, or other similar non-geographic purposes. These maps were designed to appeal to the eye and mind, adding colorful vignettes, text and often a humorous element.

While issued in large numbers, these maps were ephemeral and so they are often quite uncommon. Many important American graphic artists, such as Ernest Dudley Chase and Jo Mora, created these maps, each developing his own style. Since the turn of the millennium, these maps have become increasingly collectible, with some maps reaching the four figure mark, though on the whole they remain much less expensive. For those interested in collecting maps which are still surprisingly affordable, these are a great choice.

The Rocky Mountain Map Society is featuring 20th century maps, including pictorial maps, as part of its 2015 Map Month. This year, the RMMS is working with both Denver Public Library and the University of Denver, both of which are holding major exhibitions of these maps through the end of June 2015. The exhibit at Denver Public Library focuses on 20th century maps from the collection of the Western History Department and the exhibit at University of Denver is exclusively about pictorial maps, showing wonderful images from a local, private collection. Both are well worth a visit if you are in Denver between now and the end of June.


  1. This was an amazing blog Chris. It is really erudite to know so much about maps. I love to travel and hence maps are sort of my companion☺ ..But I had not pondered much about the fact that maps can be presented in such an interesting manner…. The pictorial maps are something I wish to come across in real.

  2. Have you listed the credits anywhere for these beautiful illustrations? I'd love to know what the second image is.