The traditional style of these maps and graphs engage the eye in a way most contemporary visualizations don’t.

CityLab loves the U.S. Census Bureau’s 19th-century statistical atlases. We’ve fawned over them not once, but three times before. The colorful windows into Gilded-Age America engage the eye in a way that most contemporary data visualizations—manifesting, as they do, a post-war design mantra of simplicity above all—just don’t.

Statistical Atlas of the U.S., 1870. (Library of Congress)

Since those golden years, the Bureau’s atlas production has been largely stagnant. But that hasn’t stopped data artists from getting inspired by the classics. Nathan Yau, a California-based statistician specializing in data visualization and creator of FlowingData, released yesterday a remarkable set of maps and graphs that apply 19th-century visual (and linguistic) style to the newest government data he could find.

Yau says he was frustrated that there weren’t any plans for new atlases from the Census Bureau, despite the unparalleled access to data their maps provide.

“At an individual level, it’s good to know about where you live,” he tells CityLab in an email. “It helps you make better decisions in the day-to-day and provides a sense of perspective for how others live. And the data is available for anyone to work with, but not many people want to look at spreadsheets and data files.”

(Nathan Yau)

But Yau was willing to do the work—and he did it quickly. In just three weeks, he produced visualizations of contemporary data on areas including land use, mortality rates, ancestry, and the country’s perilous fiscal reality. And these visualizations are just the beginning: Yau hints on his website that he plans to tackle more subgroups and subpopulations in the future.

It’s not just for fun. It’s for posterity.

“Looking back at old atlases, you get a sense of what was significant then—the crops people grew, what the government spent money on, how people died, and how people worked,” he writes. “It’ll be interesting to look back on this revised atlas a century from now. I hope.”

For more maps and information on Yau’s work, check out the FlowingData website. And for even more old-is-new-again data-viz delight, take a look at Jim Vallandingham’s interactive reproduction of a classic 19th-century population bump-chart.

(Nathan Yau)
(Nathan Yau)
(Nathan Yau)
(Nathan Yau)
(Nathan Yau)
(Nathan Yau)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a wallet full of Yen bills.
    Life

    Japan’s Lost-and-Found System Is Insanely Good

    If you misplace your phone or wallet in Tokyo, chances are very good that you’ll get it back. Here’s why.

  2. photo: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi
    Environment

    What Abu Dhabi’s City of the Future Looks Like Now

    At the UN’s World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, attendees toured Masdar City, the master-planned eco-complex designed to show off the UAE’s commitment to sustainability.

  3. Design

    How We Map Epidemics

    Cartographers are mapping the coronavirus in more sophisticated ways than past epidemics. But visualizing outbreaks dates back to cholera and yellow fever.

  4. Equity

    What Mike Bloomberg Got Wrong About Redlining and the Financial Crisis

    Comments about New Deal-era housing discrimination made by presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg echo a familiar narrative about minority homeowners.

  5. Environment

    Where America's Climate Migrants Will Go As Sea Level Rises

    13 million U.S. coastal residents are expected to be displaced by 2100 due to sea level rise. Researchers are starting to predict where they’ll go.

×