A stunning “graphic atlas” of United States history, cleverly designed, vividly illustrated and deeply patriotic, but also revealing some of the dark underbelly of American culture.
King’s Illustrated Portfolio of Our Country consists of 11 vivid, jam-packed, double-page charts and diagrams depicting different aspects of United States culture, economics, history, and politics, each accompanied by a page or two of explanatory text. Author William C. King makes his intention clear early on:
“What we read from the printed page, soon fades from the memory. Information seen with the eye, becomes permanently fixed in the mind…. Illustrated Information makes an indelible impression upon the memory. That which we read from the printed page is soon forgotten, but events, facts and men, seen in their proper relationship, become fixed in the mind without the task of memorizing.” (pp. 3-4)
King was hardly the first American to emphasize the graphic display of historical information as an aid to learning; in this country the most prominent early proponent of this approach was Emma Willard (1787-1870), though examples date back at least to David Rowland’s Epitome of Ecclesiastical History (1806) and David Ramsay’s Historical and Biographical Chart of the United States (1810).
The first five charts together form a single, intensely-patriotic timeline of American history, divided into five distinct periods: “Colonization”, “Colonial Development”, “The Revolution”, “Intellectual and Industrial Growth” and “Marvelous Achievement and World Wide Influence.” Almost every available inch is packed with pictorial vignettes of events and portraits of figures ranging from the iconic to the relatively obscure (Oddly, there is a portrait of abolitionist martyr E.P. Lovejoy, killed in Illinois by a pro-slavery mob in 1837, but no mention of the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments.) Every illustration is matched by a short descriptive paragraph on the accompanying pages of text. While occasionally critical of this or that event or personage, the overall message of the timeline is one of fairly steady progress toward national greatness in every imaginable field of endeavor.
Of the six other double-page chart, one of the most interesting is that focused on immigration, then as now a very hot topic. At left is an outline map of the country titled “Where the European Members of Our National Family Locate Their Homes,” showing the number of immigrants to each state over the past 5 years, along with their countries of origin and occupations (Despite the title, immigrants from Asia are also tabulated.) At right is a flow chart documenting the year-by-year ebbs and flows of immigration from each European country, plus China and Japan, since 1840. It demonstrates at a glance how immigration patterns had changed radically in recent years: “About 1882 there set in a change in the source of our incoming population, the streams from Southern and Eastern Europe beginning to swell while those from Northern and Western Europe gradually decreased.” (p. 33) The accompanying commentary is panicky and more than a bit racist: Beginning with the headline “Immigration is the Most Far-reaching Problem of Our National Family,” King argues, among other things, that the new wave of arrivals “come to us with little or no conception of American civilization, being illiterate and superstitious, representing the lowest strata of civilization of that section of Europe.”
Also of great interest are the two charts that together form a timeline of American political history. The upper sections list, year-by-year, the Presidents, their cabinet members, and the governors of each state, color coded, counterintuitively to modern eyes, blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. Below this a diagram charts the evolution and interrelationships of the major and minor political parties, which are depicted them as streams flowing in to and out of one another. For example the Federalist “stream” is shown merging with the Democratic-Republicans around 1820, though by the Election of 1828 the Republicans are shown diverging into Democratic and National Republican streams.
William C. King (1853-????) was a Springfield, Massachusetts author and publisher, many of whose publications had an didactic or educational slant. His earliest publication in OCLC is The Royal Path of Life; or, Aims and Aids to Success and Happiness (1880); the latest Our Wonderful Country Illustrated (1907).
Whether or not one agrees with King’s outlook, his Illustrated Portfolio has a legitimate claim to be the most visually appealing work of its kind produced in this country up to its time.