The pioneering Atlas of the United States Printed for the Use of the Blind printed in raised relief at the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind. One of the most significant and interesting early American atlases.
The New England Institution for the Education of the Blind
Opened in Boston in 1829, the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind was the United States’ first school for the visually impaired, dedicated to providing them with the knowledge and skills to live independently in a sighted world. The founder and first Director was the remarkable Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), physician, abolitionist, supporter of and participant in the Greek Revolution, and educator of and untiring advocate for the blind. The school came to prominence through Howe’s success with Laura Bridgman (1829-1889), “the first deaf-blind child to gain a significant education in the English language, fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller” (Wikipedia). It still operates today as the Perkins School for the Blind, named in honor of one of its original patrons, though the mission has expanded to become international in scope.
Howe was a fascinating and multi-faceted individual; his energy and passion were invaluable in establishing the school, developing advances in education of the vision-impaired, and raising the funding to secure the school’s long-term future. One of the most significant and innovative steps he took was, in 1833, to engage Stephen Preston Ruggles to establish an in-house printing shop to produce the specialised books necessary to educate the pupils at the school. This press was the first of its kind in the U.S. Among its output were a grammar, spelling books, and more ambitious efforts such as a New Testament, Book of Psalms, a complete Bible, and Universal History. All were printed using “Boston Line Type,” an embossed typeface of Howe’s own design, which remained in use for decades until replaced by Braille.
The press also produced embossed maps and other geographical materials, including a Geography for the Blind, a General Atlas (1835-37?), an Atlas of the United States (1837), and an Atlas of the Principal Islands of the Globe (1838). All these productions, both text and maps, reflected Howe’s view that “bringing blind and low-vision students into society meant teaching them as the sighted were taught and with materials as close as possible to those used by sighted students…. [in order] to ease communication in both form and content between the blind and the sighted.” (Weimer, 136-137) While admirable, these goals necessitated “a difficult compromise between adhering to recognizable visual forms and accommodating the needs of blind and low-vision readers.” (Ibid., 137)
Atlas of the United States, Printed for Use of the Blind
Offered here is the New England Institution’s Atlas of the United States, one of the first books to emerge from its press. The Atlas consists of 51 embossed leaves including three leaves of title and introductory text followed by 24 map leaves, each depicting one or two states or the District of Columbia and accompanied by a leaf of descriptive text. The final map depicts the State of Michigan, which had been admitted to the Union in January 1837, the year the atlas was published.
As the first tactile atlas for the use of the blind, this was a major landmark in cartographic publishing. Howe’s Introduction makes this clear:
“It is known that the contrivances hitherto used in Europe for the instruction of the blind in geography, are very expensive, rude & imperfect, hardly deserving the name of maps. They were made by hand, either by puncturing through a common map the boundaries &c. or by first pasting a map upon a board, & then glueing upon it, strings or bits of pasteboard, to represent boundaries, rivers, &c. there was no lettering, or no printed explanation, so that the blind could not tell by themselves, whether the portion they placed the finger upon was to represent one part of the globe or another; they required to be taught upon each map, by a seeing person.”
The innovative goal of the atlas—to enable the visually impaired to study maps independently as well as with sighted partners—necessitated innovative design. Thus, the wealth of information on contemporary maps has been distilled to the essentials, including state boundaries, major rivers and mountain ranges, and important places and landmarks. Each type of information is represented by a different tactile symbol: dotted lines for state boundaries; solid raised lines for rivers and “ribbed” lines to distinguish bodies of water from solid land; and letters and numbers for places and landmarks, explained by accompanying descriptive text. Though Louis Braille (1809-52) had published his writing system in 1829, Howe deliberately eschewed it because of its inaccessibility to sighted readers. (Weimer, 140-141) Instead, the atlas used Howe’s novel Boston Line Type, whose simplified, angular letter forms were legible to both visually-impaired and sighted readers.
Stephen Preston Ruggles and production of the Atlas
There has long been debate about where the credit for this atlas, and the other New England Institution publications, should be assigned. As head of the Institution and driving force behind the ambitious publication scheme, this credit has generally been attributed to Howe, but even in his own lifetime there was dispute, with Howe complaining that printer Stephen Preston Ruggles was taking all Howe’s credit.
It is clear, however, that Howe’s first steps at embossed printing were tentative, and not altogether a success. It was only with the arrival of Ruggles as head of the Institution’s printing operation that the atlas project took shape.
“the [Atlas of the United States] will be found to be superior to the first, in the clearness & strength of the impression, & in the advantage of representing a smaller extent of country on the square inch. … the blind reader will observe that the present maps are far superior to those first composed & published by me: for this improvement & for many others in printing, & I am indebted to the ingenuity of Mr. S. P. Ruggles.” (“Introduction” to the Atlas of the United States Printed for the Use of the Blind)
Ruggles (1808-1880) had a long and impressive career as a printer. He was originally apprenticed as a tailor but at age 15 was apprenticed anew to Simon Ide, a printer in Windsor, Vermont. Throughout his career, Ruggles proved to be innovator in printing, an obituary describing him as an “inventive genius;” even as an apprentice, he made advances in stereotyping. When he felt his master had taught him all he could, he left his apprenticeship early and moved to Boston in 1826 to work in the printing trade. In his unpublished autobiography Ruggles listed six printing techniques, tools or presses that he claimed to have invented between 1826 and 1833. (New England Register, Vol. 34 (1880) p. 419.)
In 1833, he was employed by Howe to establish the press at the Institution for the Blind, the press actually beginning operation in 1835. When Howe explained what was required, Ruggles designed and built the printing press required, designed the Boston Line Type in collaboration with Howe, and experimented with varieties of paper. Special paper had to be acquired to hold the image: too thin and the raised image would punch through the paper, too thick and either the image would not emboss properly or the paper would crack in printing. Then, as a tactile medium, the paper had to be robust enough to hold the image with many hands passing over it in the process of reading.
It is uncertain how the maps were created, but the physical evidence available suggests some possibilities. The lettering and some of the symbols are clearly created by individual type plugs, comparable with type used in book and newspaper production. The type would be placed in a narrow mesh frame—under magnification, the outline of this mesh is readily visible on the maps as a series of faintly-indented squares and rectangles. It is likely that the coastlines and boundaries were similarly produced, as close inspection reveals that these lines are both segmented and repetitive, suggesting that they too were constructed from an array of type plugs.
Once the image had been built up in the frame, the image would be transferred, using the stereotyping process, onto a metal plate for printing. The edges of the printing plates are clearly visible in the margins of the maps and accompanying text of the Atlas.
During his time at the press, Ruggles probably printed three atlases: a General Atlas, of which I am unable to locate any extent copies; the Atlas of the United States offered here; and, in 1838, a companion Atlas of the Principal Islands of the Globe. In 1837 he also constructed a mammoth tactile floor-globe, composed of some six or seven hundred pieces of wood, with the raised geographical section built up with papier-mâché, the ball some thirteen foot in circumference (four-foot six diameter). He left the New England Institution in 1838 but continued to work as a printer, registering many new patents, and his accumulated wealth allowed him the freedom to experiment on his philanthropic pursuits, with a particular focus creating maps for the visually impaired.
Rarity and references
Per Rumsey, only 50 copies of the Atlas of the United States Printed for the Use of the Blind are said to have been printed, and it must have seen very hard use. Accordingly, I am aware of only 21 surviving examples, including the present copy, a gorgeous copy recently sold by a private collector to an unknown buyer, and 15 institutional copies. As of October 2019, institutional holdings are listed at OCLC 3211825 (Boston Athenaeum, Charleston Library Society, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Office of Commonwealth Libraries (Pennsylvania), State Library of Ohio, Univ. of Illinois); 29082401 (Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, New Jersey State Library, Univ. of Minnesota); 1082893362 and 557785105 (both British Library); and 950933955 (American Antiquarian Society). Additional examples are held by the Library of Congress (attested to by LeGear), the Rumsey Map Center at Stanford, and the Perkins School for the Blind (with five copies). One of the latter is inscribed by Abigail Carter who, with her sister Sophia, was among the very first pupils taught at the New England Asylum for the Blind.
LeGear, Geographical Atlases, 10471. LeGear, United States Atlases, L3649 (American Antiquarian Society, Dartmouth, Library of Congress). Rumsey 5956. Not in Howes or Sabin.
Background on Howe and the New England Institution from David Weimer, “To Touch a Sighted World[:] Tactile Maps in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Winterthur Portfolio vol. 51 no. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2017), pp. 135-158. Background on Ruggles from New England Historic and Genealogical Register, Vol. 34 (1880) p. 419); the Twenty-Fourth Report … of the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind, pp. 15-17); and Susanna Coit, “The Man Behind the Globe[:] Who designed and created the famous Perkins globe?” on the web site of the Perkins School for the Blind. Coit draws heavily on Rollo G. Silver, ed., “The autobiography of Stephen P. Ruggles,” Printing history: The Journal of the American Printing History Association, vol. 1, no.1 (1979), pp.7-17.
Laura E. Bowers. Jan. 1[7?]. 1878.” inscribed in ink on front free endpaper; “arkansaw” corrected in pencil to “alabama” on the map of South Carolina and Georgia. Some spotting and staining to endpapers, first few leaves with residual discoloration from removal of “scrapbooked” news cuttings. Roughly 1/3 of second text leaf missing, Maine map with small rectangular cut-out at top. Front endpaper replaced with matching period stock. Binding a bit scuffed and bumped, respined. Fragment of original embossed spine label laid in.