a photo illustration of a pictorial map of Los Angeles
Madison Johnson/CityLab

Meet Joseph Jacinto Mora, the king of California pictorial cartography.

In April, 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library’s historic Central Library on Flower Street went up in flames; the catastrophic (and still-unsolved) blaze consumed some 400,000 volumes and caused $22 million in damages to the 1926 building. Many collections were left without a home, including the reference department, where I’d worked for 10 years.

In the aftermath, we sorted through the ashes and saved as many books and artifacts as we could. In 1989, we were able to move into nearby temporary quarters (it wasn’t until 1993 that we returned to our home on Flower Street). By that time, the old map librarian had had more than enough of cartography questions and retired to Florida. I knew just a gnat’s eyelash more than anyone else about the map collection, which we had stuffed temporarily into an old bank vault of the one-time Title Insurance Company downtown. But the gig paid more; I fought to take on the job, and won.

Suddenly, I had 100,000 maps and no clue as to what they were or how to use them. Out of desperation, I began going drawer by drawer, in hopes of finding a cartographic Rosetta Stone. I was awash in initials: USGS, NOAA, DMA, BIA, USHO, BLM, ONC, PAIGH, WTF? At the first staff meeting, I was asked a question about a map’s scale. Panic set in: I never took Maps 101.

Over the next year, I tried to do my homework, visiting the map gurus around Southern California, poring through old books on the subject, and allowing the map-nerd public to teach me many lessons as I struggled to answer reference questions.

Even after attending cartographic society conventions, where the true map illuminati mingled, I was still not worthy of my title, and was bluffing most of the time. I was using my collection like a carpenter uses lumber and nails; there was no passion in it. I did not go home and dream of cadastrals and bathymetrics.

Still, I kept pushing myself to learn. Every day, I’d dump a new drawer on a wooden cart (called trucks in library-ese) and pick through the sheets, studying the authorship and time-frame of each one. I slogged through thousands of topographic maps and government cartography until I had finally reached the library’s greatly under-sung pictorial map collection. It was during one of these sessions that I met Joseph Jacinto Mora, who I now consider the king of pictorial mapping.

To view a Mora map is to grasp that mapping can be an art form. On that day in 1989, as I rested my eyes upon his “Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles,” I fell in love. The map is a riot of color, jocular images, historical events, and fairly accurate geography of the City of Angels. The “carte,” as he liked to call his pictorial maps, is dedicated to Jo’s pal, Charles Fletcher Lummis, a colorful L.A. literary figure from the turn of the 20th century who managed to become both the L.A. Times’ first city editor, chief librarian of the L.A. Public Library, and the founder of the Southwest Museum.

Mora’s carte encompasses a lot of L.A.’s past, from colonial times to its 1942 date of publishing. Beginning with Juan Bautista de Anza on horseback, it spans the Spanish and Mexican periods, including costumes, cultural life and even the breeds of cattle prevalent in early Los Angeles. Statehood, the connection of railroads, and early land booms are covered, along with the beginnings of electricity, streetcars, the development of the harbor, citrus farming, the movie studios, earthquakes, and the epic fight to bring water to the growing city.

The body describes the city’s charms and culture, including the Hollywood Bowl, Pacific Coast minor league baseball, radio stations, native fish off the coast. The city’s growth of population is portrayed via a series of ladies blowing up ever-larger balloons, etched with tiny numbers. There is a little Trojan at USC, a Bruin at UCLA, and a Jesuit at Loyola University.

Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles, by Joseph Jacinto Mora. (Los Angeles Public Library)

To be sure, there is plenty that this highly romanticized map leaves out—the horrific realities of the Mission era, the consequences of L.A.’s water wars, the segregation that was occurring in Mora’s day. Some of his cartoon-like figures are racist stereotypes, including depictions of African Americans in servile roles, black-faced minstrel-show characters in Hollywood, and childlike Native Americans being swindled out of land in exchange for trinkets. Overall, the heroes of Los Angeles history have a distinctly paternalistic and pale hue. The map is very much a product of its age.

In other ways, though, its message is unusually inclusive. Mora’s characters are not big capitalists and celebrities, but mostly regular (if white) folks. The sheer volume of characters it celebrates seems to stress the large number of people it took to build the big city out of a dusty little pueblo. And it’s full of joyful and eccentric touches—strolling chinchillas, friendly mermaids, ostriches, and even a dinosaur stuck (anachronistically) in the La Brea Tar Pits. Mora’s map is about the place that Los Angeles was, and can be, for an everyday person.

Who was this artist who made maps not for navigation, but as expressions of a place he loved? Born in Uruguay, Jo Mora arrived in the U.S. as a boy in 1880. At 15, he was working as a graphic artist for Boston newspapers. Eventually he moved to California, settling in San Jose and the Monterey peninsula, and become an accomplished sculptor, book illustrator, muralist, writer and historian of the Southwest United States. His books on the early vaqueros and the pre-state Californios continue to be definitive, and his regular visits to L.A. left a trail of artworks in theaters, homes, and various public institutions.

Jo died in 1947, but over the last 70-plus years, his work has steadily gained stature. And though he only created them as a sideline from his busy artistic career, his cartes are masterpieces of the genre. From his picture of L.A., I traveled to Mora’s Carmel, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and beyond.

Thirty years later, I still do not get moony over stacks of nautical charts. But I do remember that the blue in their oceans signifies something grand, the sort of feeling that Mora was so good at evoking and that transforms an otherwise dry image into something more than good gift-wrapping paper. Since encountering Mora’s work, I can look at all forms of cartography with greater appreciation. I even dream about maps. (To be honest, I have nightmares where I can’t find them.)

In my decades running the map collection, I have been given many awards, and had the opportunity to take on many projects beyond my day-to-day work, authoring books, appearing in documentaries, and contributing to Los Angeles magazine and many other publications. But while others in my trade can opine at great length about maps of antiquity—Ptolemy, Mercator, Ortellius—I get charged up when I can pull out the Mora from our drawers. Soon, he’ll make it onto the walls: After including many of Mora’s maps in smaller exhibits over the years, next year, the library plans to display several of them, with the help of the Jo Mora Trust. He opened my eyes to the wonder that a map can hold, and my hope is to help all of our library-goers to do the same.

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