A most unusual hieroglyphic geography of New England and New York

Designed and drawn by Anna A. Heermans / Engraved by Charlotte B. Cogswell, Cooper Union Engraving School / Electrotyped and printed by H.O. Houghton and Company, A HIEROGLYPHIC GEOGRAPHY OF THE UNITED STATES PART I [all issued] CONTAINING THE STATES OF MAINE, NEW HAMPSHIRE, VERMONT, MASSACHUSETTS, RHODE ISLAND, CONNECTICUT, AND NEW YORK. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1875.
Folio. 24 unnumbered leaves, heavily illustrated. Bound in red cloth with title in gilt set within a blindstamped frame. Some soiling and wear to leaves, including wear along gutter of first few leaves. Boards a bit bumped and soiled.

A remarkable “ hieroglyphic geography ” of New England and New York by two women associated with the Cooper Union Engraving School.

 The atlas is simple in organization, with separate sections for each of the six New England states plus New York. Each section consists of a half-title; a page with a tiny map and a rebus describing the state’s geography, cities, public buildings &c; and a page of text “translating” the rebus. Though the use of the term “hieroglyphic” in the title seems a bit odd, there was distant precedent for its use with respect to rebuses; as early as 1788 Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Mass. published a Curious Hieroglyphic Bible, and dozens of similar titles were issued throughout the 19th century.

I am aware of nothing quite like the Hieroglyphic Atlas, at least in American geographical publishing, though the spirit of the thing is very much reminiscent of the educational philosophy of Emma Willard. Willard (1787-1870) was a pioneering educator and founder of the Troy Female Seminary “which soon became a preeminent school for future teachers and one of the country’s finest institutions of female education.” (Schulten, p. 18) Willard rejected the then-current emphasis on rote memorization in the teaching of geography and history, and she published a slew of innovative maps, atlases and diagrams designed to engage the learner visually.

“[She] did not take issue with the goal of memorization, as later educators would, but instead faulted existing learning methods and reformulated the presentation of information. The distinction is important, for she believed that the visual preceded the verbal. Information presented spatially and visually would facilitate memory by attaching images to the mind through the eyes….” (Schulten, p. 19)

Designer Anna Heermans had been a student at the school and received a certificate in wood engraving in 1873. Judith Tyner suggests that in 1875, when the Atlas was published, she was working as a freelance artist. The illustrations were engraved by Charlotte Cogswell, who from 1871-1880 headed the engraving program at Cooper Union in New York.

The atlas received positive reviews, the New York Times praising it as “ingenious and interesting” and “a welcome aid to mothers”, while the Independent perhaps went a bit overboard: “No child can use the handsome book an hour without getting, unawares, both fun and knowledge” (both cited in The Publishers’ Weekly, Vol. VIII July-December, 1875, p. 67). Nevertheless it seems not to have met with much commercial success: Additional volumes covering other states were never produced, and the atlas is relatively rare both in institutional collections and on the antiquarian market.

OCLC #759196 (12 institutional holdings), 1235562008 (1), and 702388142 (1). Phillips, Atlases, #1284. Rumsey #2107. Judith Tyner, Women in American Cartography[:] An Invisible Social History (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020), pp. 14-16. Some background from Rebecca Onion, “Go Ahead, Try to Decode This 19th-Century Rebus Atlas of New England”, Slate, Sept. 29, 2014 (accessed April 2021).