The Motley Roots of Data Visualization in 19th Century Census Charts

A Handsome Atlas celebrates Uncle Sam’s data chops by reproducing three Statistical Atlases from the late 1800s.

The U.S. Census has long been a lightning rod for controversy. Does it wildly undercount minorities? Wildly overcount minorities? Or—as Michelle Bachmann warned us—is it a liberal plot orchestrated by ACORN?

But no one has ever accused our Census Bureau of being a hotbed of…graphic design. Until now.

A Handsome Atlas celebrates Uncle Sam’s data chops by reproducing three Statistical Atlases from the latter decades of the 19th century. Its creator is Jonathan Soma, cofounder of the Brooklyn Brainery, a storefront school that offers lectures on a grab bag of topics from mustard making to the history of the Gowanus Canal. He’s also a stats junkie who has tracked everything from Tokyo breakfast habits to bike lanes.

Soma unearthed the Atlases by chance. While researching the spread of Chinatowns in New York City, he discovered a trove of maps and charts in a musty backroom of the Library of Congress web site. "Originally I was hoping to do some data visualizations with really old census stuff," he says. "But then I stumbled upon all of these amazing ones that had already been done."

Soma organized the 384 plates into eight topics—from manufacturing to mortality—and eight "visualizations" including bar graphs, maps, and pie charts. And they are wonders to behold, with or without the numbers. Ingenious "radar charts" turn urban diarrhea deaths into a haunting Rorschach test. This church affiliation chart looks like a patchwork quilt made by Josef Albers.


One plate is so handsome, Soma actually un-digitized it. "I’ve got a big print of it coming my way," he says. "It should be great as wall art."

Of course this stuff isn’t just suitable for framing. Unravel this cat’s cradle-like ranking of America’s most populous cities above, and you can follow the decline of Charleston, South Carolina, after the Civil War and the sudden ascendency of Milwaukee following the arrival of Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz.

Curious footnotes in American history pop up everywhere, as Soma discovered when he spotted an apparent flaw in a U.S. map. "Where Oklahoma should be, we had I.T.," he says. "It turns out it was Indian Territory. In 1905 the Native Americans who lived there applied for statehood. They wanted to create something called the State of Sequoia. But they were shot down, and two years later Oklahoma was made."

Together the Atlases show a country emerging from crisis to redefine itself: more urban, diverse, and if you lived in Illinois or Kentucky, substantially more wasted.

The first Statistical Atlas of the United States of America was published in 1874 to coincide with the nation’s centennial. Two of the most stunning Atlases, from 1880 and 1890, were produced by Henry Gannett, who went on to co-found the National Geographic Society. His final Atlas even contains intimations of the Information Age. The 1890 census was the first to use a punch-card tabulating machine devised by Henry Hollerith, whose company would form the foundation of IBM.

"So much of what we do now has its roots, apparently, in what was around in the 1800s," says Soma. Take Gannet’s map of gender distribution in 1890.


Here's Soma’s own map, showing that American testosterone (at least for single people) still moves in a westerly direction.

In one regard the census has changed dramatically. While the 2000 Census broke down race into 63 categories, a century earlier we came in only five “colors." The language of these Atlases oozes xenophobia. Maps and charts refer to "natives" and "non-natives." Non–European Americans are lumped in as "other foreign." And slave populations are often omitted altogether.

Then there are the "deaf mutes, paupers, and prisoners," gathered under the heading: "Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes." Or this antiquated guide to the “insane” of 1870. I mean, who would be insensitive enough to call for a national database of the mentally ill these days?

About the Author

  • Jeffrey Rotter is a fiction writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, NY. His debut novel, The Unknown Knowns, was published in 2009.