Maps

How Women Mapped the Upheaval of 19th Century America

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

Image CityLab/Mark Byrnes
CityLab/Mark Byrnes

As I wrote in the first installment of this series, women have been participating in cartography about as long as any man has. That means women have been using maps to convey ideas and agendas—for better or for worse, conscientiously or unwittingly. For a map is never neutral. Sometimes, it is plainly propaganda. Other times, its bias is subtle enough for it to pass as scientific artifact.

In the explosive 19th century, women produced maps (entire atlases, actually) that attempted to make sense of America’s relatively new nationhood, its boundaries and beliefs, and who belonged there. In the maps presented here, women cartographers conveyed both facts and fictions about a country in upheaval, and developed new visual techniques in the process.

Mapping movement

Emma Hart Willard, “Locations and Wanderings of the Aboriginal Tribes” from Willard’s History of the United States, 1828. (Library of Congress)

The early 19th-century cartographer, historian, educator, and women’s rights activist Emma Hart Willard pioneered new techniques for teaching geography and producing maps. She advocated a localized approach to learning one’s land, contrary to the era’s common practice: “Instead of commencing the study of maps with the map of the world, which is the most difficult to understand,” she and co-author William Woodbridge wrote in 1844’s Woodbridge and Willard's Universal Geography, “the pupil here begins, in the most simple manner imaginable, to draw a map of his own town.”

In her own maps, Willard stuck to representations of the United States, and in this she was not without her prejudices. In one of her widely sold geography “readers,” she innovated new cartographic techniques while also reinforcing dominant assumptions about Native Americans. Pictured above, “Locations and Wanderings of the Aboriginal Tribes,” is the “Introductory Map” in 1828’s Willard’s History of the United States. The map uses colors and vectors to show settlement and movement patterns of Native Americans in the Eastern U.S.—an unprecedented visual strategy for mapping American history that “re-conceptualize[d] the past on a plane rather than in a narrative,” writes the historian Susan Schulten in the Journal of Historical Geography.

But it does so without giving any specific timeframe for the tribes’ spatial trajectories other than the one that is implied in the map’s title and position in the atlas: Before Europeans. This tactic “reflected and reinforced the existing assumption that Native Americans existed in a timeless space prior to the advent of human history,” Schulten writes.

Alongside the other maps in the book, Willard was constructing an idea of nationhood that hinged on Anglo-American histories and developments, and which emphasized a coherent, united United States. She did this as that national unity (if it ever existed) was beginning to seriously fray.

Charting the Confederacy

Marinda Branson Moore, “Virginia, Maryland, Delaware …,” from Primary Geography: Arranged as a Reading Book for Common Schools, 1864. (Courtesy of the Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine)

In 1863, the North Carolina “authoress” Marinda Branson Moore published The Geographical Reader for the Dixie Children, the first textbook to teach the geography of the seceded South. After the Civil War began, such primers were “both a practical and a patriotic necessity” for the Confederacy, as the historians O. L. Davis, Jr. and Serena Rankin Parks soberly wrote in 1963, as Southern schoolteachers saw the Northern-printed textbooks in supply as “blighted with by Yankee biases and inaccuracies.” If they preferred to inculcate racist, pseudo-academic ideology that rationalized black slavery and the South’s secession, then Moore’s book was just the thing.

The Reader included maps of the Southern states, such as the one above, which shows Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the Mason-Dixon line, rendered in dots and dashes. The book also includes descriptions on the climates, topographies, and people of the Southern states, as well as a handful of countries in South America and the entire continent of Africa. Of Africans, Branson Moore writes:

They know nothing of Jesus, and the climate in Africa is so unhealthy that white men can scarcely go there to preach to them. The slaves who are found in America are in much better condition. They are better fed, better clothed, and better instructed than in their native country.

Later, Branson Moore explains that the Northern states are “mad” on the subject of slavery. How many Southern children learned from this geography book? Enough to support two editions before the end of war in 1865 and many, many more “Dixie” textbooks, in which Branson Moore taught spelling, reading, and history. The Confederacy may have lost the war, but the brand of racism that Branson Moore espoused lives on south of the Mason-Dixon line—and north and west of it.

New Americans, block by block

Agnes Sinclair Holbrook, “Nationalities Map No. 1,” from Hull-House Maps and Papers, 1895. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library)

A conservative estimate for the Civil War’s death toll is around 620,000. Combined with westward migration, this loss of mostly male lives disrupted the East’s gender balance in the late 19th century. Marriage rates dropped and marriage ages rose for women. As Rebecca Traister writes in New York magazine, “Unburdened of the responsibilities of wifeliness and motherhood, many of these women did what women have long been trained to do: throw themselves into service to community”—of which there was plenty to give. This was a moment of booming immigration and urban growth in the Northeast U.S. Wealth inequality was almost as gaping as today.

To address the needs of newly arrived, poor European immigrants in Chicago, the reformer Jane Addams opened Hull-House in 1889. The settlement house, which offered its clients classes, childcare, healthcare, and employment services, was also home to a number of educated women who came to teach or otherwise help with its mission.

One such person, Agnes Sinclair Holbrook, moved to Hull-House in her early twenties. Alongside other residents, Holbrook applied her college training in science and art to collecting and mapping demographic data from their Near West Side neighborhood. She designed the map pictured above, which illustrates the nationalities of immigrants living nearby. Influenced by Charles Booth’s statistical mapping of poverty in London, the map (and the three others like it that appear in Hull-House Maps and Papers) visualizes detailed statistics with remarkable economy. The presentation influenced the research methods and interests of the burgeoning field of sociology, and it foreshadowed modern GIS mapping. The map itself asserts a progressive ideal of America: a nation that opens its arms to huddled masses, yearning to be free.  

As the 20th century dawned, women cartographers found subjects beyond their immediate surroundings. They mapped ethnic histories, the ocean floor, fantasy worlds, and much more. I’ll elaborate on those on Friday.

About the Author

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