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How 20th-Century Women Put the 'Art' in Cartography

The third part in a series exploring little-seen contributions to cartography.

Mark Byrnes/CityLab

As I explored in parts one and two of this series, women have been making maps for centuries. They have developed and applied new technologies, data collection techniques, and visual presentations to their maps as they charted new terrain, illustrated historical narratives, and pushed political and social agendas. In the 20th century, women mapmakers continued this work in larger numbers than ever—and no short post can account sufficiently for all of their contributions over a century that saw technological and social revolutions, one after another.

Examining just a small sample of the many compelling maps made by North American women in the 20th century, a theme emerges: aesthetic mastery.

In the days before the women’s liberation movement (except for a brief moment during World War II), most women didn’t have access to technical training in cartography. “Civil engineering, where topographic drafting was taught, was not a ‘girls’ subject,” writes Judith Tyner, a professor emerita of geography at California State University, Long Beach, in a presentation given at mapping conference earlier this year. But this didn’t stop women from participating in cartography. It simply meant that many who did started with a background in the arts. In the maps below, an unusual attention to graphic quality shows—even in those that helped to chart new scientific territory.

Mapping black history

Louise E. Jefferson, “Americans of Negro Lineage,” Friendship Press, 1946. (Used by permission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved worldwide, 2016.)

Growing up at the turn of the century, Louise E. Jefferson learned calligraphy and drawing from her father, a calligrapher at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She followed in his footsteps toward a career in commercial illustration, taking lessons at Howard University in the 1930s and later at Hunter College in New York. She became one of the great pictorial mapmakers of the early 20th century, and broke major ground as a woman of color in the field.  

Her early days going gig-to-gig as a professional artist weren’t easy. According to one source, her freelance work for the YWCA earned her just seventy-five cents per poster. She encountered racist reactions to some of her work: In 1936, the state of Georgia banned a book of patriotic songs she had illustrated with images of black and white children. The governor ordered copies of it to be burned.

Detail of the Jefferson map. (Used by permission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved worldwide, 2016.)

Eventually, Jefferson found a regular gig at the Friendship Press, the publishing arm of the National Council of Churches. She did some of her finest work there in a series of pictorial maps of Africa, India, China, the U.S., and several versions of the map shown above, “Americans of Negro Lineage.” (Explore it in full-size here.)

It is a remarkable map, especially considering its time. Black American scientists, scholars, inventors, writers, musicians, artists, steel workers, farmers, actors, and athletes are drawn in careful, vivid detail and located in their respective geographies, their achievements and contributions called out in snippets of text. Some of the figures are identified on the map, but many others aren’t—a powerful way of putting the unnamed black workers who literally built America on the same plane as the Harriet Tubmans and Louis T. Wrights of the world. Tyner notes that Jefferson’s figures “are less cartoonish and certainly less stereotypical” than the way some other pictorial mapmakers (and other producers of popular culture) were representing people of color at the time.

Jefferson’s stellar work eventually earned her a full-time position as the Friendship Press’ art director, which probably made her among the first black women to hold such a position. By then, she was an established figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild, which would become a model for community art centers around the county.

Mystery maps

Ruth Belew’s ‘map-backs’ for Nightmare Town, Dell #379, 1950, Dead Yellow Women, Dell #308, 1949, and The Creeping Siamese, Dell #538, 1951. (Courtesy Eddie Duggan)

Very little is known about Ruth Belew, a prolific Chicago-based illustrator of paperback books in the mid 20th century. But she was the artist behind at least 150 “map-backs”—the tantalizing cartographic illustrations printed on the backs of thrift editions by Dell Publishing between 1942 and 1951. These map-backs were very effective in luring readers into their hard-boiled and romantic plots, characters, and settings of stories by the likes of Dashiell Hammett; Dell published nearly 600 of them in total.

One thing that is known is Belew’s basic technique: According to Tyner, she would draw these maps at twice the publication size on cardboard. The publisher would approve the draft for its accuracy in regard to the book’s narrative, then send it to a lithographic colorist to paint its eye-popping shades.

Many of the crime novels Belew mapped had strong geographical roots in the labyrinthine and foggy cities of the West, and the popularity of the stories themselves helped give rise to the new genre of film noir cinema. But according to Tyner, nowhere on the maps or books that helped sell these vivid stories does Belew’s name appear. “The cover artist is usually listed on the copyright page, but not the mapmaker who drew the maps that made the series famous,” she tells CityLab. She remains all too mysterious—although maybe, in some small respect, that’s part of the map-back appeal.

Charting the sea floor

Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, Physiographic Diagram of the Western Pacific Ocean. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America, 1971. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library)

During World War II, the U.S. military needed accurate and up-to-date maps of strategic territories involved in the war. As men were sent off to fight, “a call went out to people who could make maps,” Tyner says. “And by and large, it was women who signed up.” Called “Millie the Mappers” or “Military Mapping Maidens,” thousands of women became involved in cartographic war efforts, developing battle maps, drafting topographic maps using aerial photography (a new technology), charting different types of terrain, and much more. Some of them remained in their professions after the war, while many returned to more domestic lives.

Marie Tharp stayed put. She wasn’t a Mille the Mapper per se, but her entry into the mapmaking world came through an opening for a graduate degree created by the war. “With classrooms empty of men during the war years, [the University of Michigan]—which had never allowed women into its geology program—was trying to fill seats,” reads an entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Drafting sketches by Tharp. (Courtesy Judith Tyner)

Tharp seized the opportunity, and after graduating took a position as a research assistant to a Columbia University PhD student named Bruce Heezen, who was collecting bathymetric data from the ocean floor.  (World War II’s submarine warfare had expanded interest in the marine environment.) Her aptitude in analyzing data, and fine skill in rendering it in drawings, quickly transformed her role into that of a true research partner with Hezeen, and both started working at Columbia’s new Lamont Geological Observatory. They were constantly battling out the facts. The New York Times writes of Tharp’s important observations of the ocean’s rift valleys:

[S]he was the first to see the signature of plate tectonics on the surface of the earth, and Heezen was the first of many scientists who rudely dismissed it. “Girl talk,” he said. “It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.” It took Tharp the better part of a year to convince him.

Their work would eventually result in the world’s first detailed physiographic map of the North Atlantic Ocean sea floor, considered to be one of the most important maps of the century—and later, of the entire ocean floor. Early versions of Tharp’s ocean floor mapping (as seen in the map pictured above) “feature an informal sketch style, while later final editions were sophisticated physical maps with color and shading, applied to reveal the dramatic mid-ocean canyons highlighting the continental divisions of the globe,” writes Alice Hudson, a former map librarian at the New York Public Library and curator of the currently running Women in Cartography exhibit at the Boston Public Library.

These maps are iconic in the oceanic sciences, and Tharp’s research and artistry are a huge part of that. But, as the less-educated woman in her partnership with Hezeen, Tharp was scarcely recognized for her work until much later in life.

Revolutionary activism and lawmaking opened up new fields to women in the 1960s and 1970s, and women flooded into cartography and the geospatial sciences like never before. They also kept making maps as artistic works. Where do women in the world of cartography stand today? Next week, I will take a closing look at present-day conditions and contributions.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.