Rare atlas of raised relief maps for use by the visually impaired

M[artin] Kunz, RELIEF-ATLAS FÜR BLINDE [:] ATLAS A L’USAGE DES AVEUGLES [:] ATLAS OF EMBOSSED MAPS FOR THE USER OF THE BLIND. Mulhouse, Alsace: Veuve Bader & Cie, [maps variously dated 1887-1909.]
83 maps printed in raised relief on heavy card stock, most ca. 15 ½” x 19 ½” at sheet edge, a couple rather smaller. All with Braille captions, most with coordinate grids labelled in Braille, and 32 with overprinted ink captions and place names. Housed in the original 20 ¾” x 17” x 6” box of green cloth over boards, with lid hinged for side access and large printed label affixed to top. Maps generally excellent, though two with moderate soiling and a few others with minor soiling. Top of box bowed from water damage, label stained and chipped.

A monumental and very rare world atlas, and a landmark in the printing of raised relief maps for use by the visually impaired.

Historical background
The printing of raised relief maps for use by the visually impaired had been pioneered in the 1830s; here in America the best known are the maps and atlases produced by Samuel Gridley Howe and Stephen Preston Ruggles at the New England Institution for the Blind. Their work was a leap forward, not least in reducing production costs, but their production methods and insistence on the use of the blocky “Boston Line Type” placed profound limitations on both the accuracy, types of information, and amount of detail that could be shown on their maps.

Offered here is an example of the rare Relief-Atlas für Blinde, which, while still imperfect, marks a substantial advance over previous work in the field. The Atlas was designed and published by Martin Kunz (1847-1923), Director of the Institute for the Blind in Illzach bei Mühlhausen (Alsace) from 1881 until his retirement in 1918. Under his leadership the Institute gained a worldwide reputation, not least because of the distinctive raised-relief maps, images and even globes turned out by its printing workshop.

Kunz produced his first maps in 1883-84, but production of raised relief maps for the visually-impaired posed numerous technical challenges, and by his own account he experimented for years before settling on a preferred method. This seems to have involved modeling a positive plate for each map in cardboard (for the land masses) and self-hardening putty laid over a framework of pins and nails (for the elevations). Moveable Braille type was then set in to the plate for titles, captions &c., much as type was set in woodcut printing blocks in the 15th and 16th centuries. A negative plate was then produced, possibly by using the positive as a mold, and maps produced by pressing sheets of dampened card stock between the two. (Kunz, pp. 229-234)

Kunz used the techniques he developed to produced a wide range of maps, including “physical” maps with topographic features and “political” maps without, as well as maps for the sighted with place names overprinted in ink. A 1907 price list advertises the maps individually for 30 Pfennig a sheet, or as the Relief-Atlas für Blinde, with 87 sheets housed in a box for 26 Marks. (Kunz, p. 343) As will be discussed below, however, it seems likely that the atlases were made up to order, and that there is no standard collation.

Description of our Atlas
Offered here is a copy of the Relief-Atlas für Blinde consisting of 83 maps raised relief maps on large sheets of very heavy card stock, all housed loose in the original case. 25 of the maps bear dates in ink, ranging from 1887 to 1909. The maps employ a system of standardized tactile symbols: Raised dotted lines indicate national, regional and state boundaries; single raised dots cities and towns; raised solid lines rivers and streams; and parallel raised lines large bodies of water. In major improvements over the work of Howe and Ruggles, most of the maps depict topography in raised relief, and most have raised graticules with coordinates of latitude and longitude given in Braille. Titles and other information are given in Braille and often also in raised Roman letters.

32 of the maps also have place names, titles and publisher’s imprints overprinted in ink. This points at the limits of the method of printing relief maps for use of the blind: the “resolution” is simply insufficient to accommodate most place names and other details of the landscape. In the case of these 32 maps, Kunz has opted to compromise by overprinting this information, thereby requiring the involvement of a sighted teacher or coach to guide the visually-impaired user.

The group includes maps of the world including a climatic diagram (3); Africa (2); Asia (7); Australia (2); Euope (54); North America (3); South America (2); the Mediterranean (2); the Pacific (2); and 5 of unidentified subjects, two of which may relate to Illzach bei Mühlhausen, where the atlas was produced. In aggregate the contents are puzzling: Many of the maps overlap; for example, the two world maps are both on the same (stereographic?) projection, but they are clearly from different blocks, and only one has the title and place names overprinted in ink. Further, in a few cases there are multiple copies of the same map, including for example no fewer than three maps of Paris, all from the same block.

The maps of the Perkins School copy of the Relief-Atlas may be viewed on line, and even a cursory examination reveals significant differences with our atlas. For example, the Perkins School atlas has maps of the Eastern Hemisphere, Rome, the Americas, and the United States not present in our copy; likewise, ours has a number of maps, plans and a diagram not present in the Perkins copy. The range of dates on the maps (1887-1909 in our atlas), the odd overlap and duplication of the maps in our copy, and the variations across different copies of the atlas, all suggest that it copies were assembled to order from materials at hand, rather than conforming to a standard collation.

A printed note on the box label boasts that “These maps are used in all German, Danish, Russian, Dutch, most Austrian, Swiss, French, Italian, Belgian, many English and Australian and several American institutions.” Indeed, Kunz asserts that as of 1907 more than 100,000 individual map sheets had been produced, enough for nearly 1150 atlases at 87 sheets per atlas. Today however the atlas and even the individual maps seem to be very rare, most presumably having been used to pieces. I find only five institutional holdings worldwide, at the University of Strasbourg (two copies, one with 90 maps, the other possibly with 87); the University of Basel (90 maps); the Library of Congress (86 maps); and the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. (probably 69 maps). Kiefer Auctions offered a group of 41 of the maps in 2007, and Daniel Crouch Rare Books offered 21 maps in 2013 (California Book Fair list, item 18). As of November 2019 I am aware of none others presently offered for sale in the antiquarian trade.

A rare landmark in the history of education for the visually impaired, well worthy of further study.

OCLC 604355949 (Univ. of Basel) and 793137521 (University of Strasbourg), as of Nov. 2019. Phillips, Atlases, #3353. Background from Prof. M. Kunz, Geschichte der Blindenanstalt zu Illzach-Mülhausen während der ersten fünfzig Jahre ihrer Tätigkeit… Leipzig: Verlag Von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907), particularly pp. 229-234 (accessed at Archive.org, November 2019 and rendered into English by Google Translate).