Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
These high-quality poster reproductions from an 1870s statistical atlas are at once gorgeously designed and utterly antiquated.
The Library of Congress' online presence is a temple of American history, an unmatched, searchable collection of digitized photographs, maps, recordings, sheet music, and documents in the millions, dating back to the 15th century.
Sifting through these treasures isn't so easy, though. When you do manage the clunky search interface and stumble across a gorgeous 1870s statistical atlas, it's hard to zoom in closely on its pages and properly marvel at the antique gem.
Problem solved, thanks to the info-nerds at Vintage Visualizations, a project of the Brooklyn Brainery. They've reproduced a number of the LOC's Civil War-era data visualizations in high-quality poster prints, and they are mouthwateringly cool. For example, I really wish we still ranked city populations like this chart does, which traces a century of census data in colorful Jenga towers (NYC, forever the biggest apple!):
Behold, the ratio of "church accommodation" by state, circa 1870, displayed like wallpaper swatches:
Or, in striking violet and maroon and with impressive use of typeface weight, a map of the U.S.'s territory acquisitions, 1874:
These gorgeous images are also quite revealing of an Anglo, 19th-century demographer's preoccupations. Check out this stark chart of employment by ethnicity. Spoiler alert: Irish and Italians were overwhelmingly laborers and railroad workers.
Here, I was struck by the color choices and the way waves of immigration are visually defined. (Major side-eye, however, to the dehumanizing language used to describe population groups.)
Below, a sure favorite for CityLab readers: An 1880 ranking of municipal debt! Sadly, Memphis remains embroiled 150 years later.
And never before has federal debt and expenditure looked quite so beautiful—or quite so telling of the cost of war. (It's hard to read here, but where the pink bars balloon at the bottom are the years 1861-1865):
Starting at $12 a pop, they're evocative gifts for the data-viz and history wonks in your life. Peruse the site for hundreds more antique charts, graphs, and maps.
Vintage visualization posters, $12-$33 at vintagevisualizations.com.