Ravenstein’s Plastischer Schul Atlas

Drawn and designed by August Ravenstein / Engraved and printed by B. Dondorf, Plastischer Schul-Atlas. Frankfurt am Main: B. Dondorf, [ca. 1854-1865.]
Two sets of eight identical maps, each ca. 10”h x 8”w at neatline. One set in raised relief, printed and stamped on card stock, each map mounted on a paper-covered frame of thin wooden dowels. The other set printed on paper, loose in a speckled-yellow glazed paper folder. Both sets in printed color though in different schemes, the sheet maps with some added hand color. Maps with minor soiling and wear. Original box perished, maps now housed in a later green-painted wooden box.

An early edition of the Plastischer Schul Atlas … the first commercially-produced set of raised relief maps, intended for teaching purposes.

This charming atlas includes matched sets of eight relief and eight sheet maps of the world, the six continents and Germany. The printing on the two sets is identical, though the coloring of the relief maps emphasizes geographical features while that on the sheet maps highlights political divisions. The attractive color, decorative cartouches, and interesting presentation combine to render this a most pleasing artifact of 19th-century cartographic innovation. The presence of the Nebraska Territory (1854-1867) on the North America map enables a rough dating of the atlas to those years, while the bibliographic sources give dates of 1854-65.

Friedrich August Ravenstein (1809-1881) was an innovative German cartographer and cartographic publisher. Though relief maps had been known and used for millennia, it was only in the 1830s that Ravenstein and fellow German George Bauerkeller began to develop commercially viable versions. Ravenstein claimed to have produced his first “Plastic [i.e., Relief] Atlas” in 1838 and scooped Bauerkeller by a year, but commercially available sets may not have appeared for some time thereafter. They were mentioned as a relatively new development in 1849 by W.J. Hamilton, President of the Royal Geographical Society of London, in his “Sketch of the Progress of Geography during the Past Year:”

“I must also notice the relief maps of M. Ravenstein. The art of constructing these useful and interesting maps has now reached a high degree of perfection. M. Ravenstein has presented to the Society an atlas of eight different maps in relief, ingeniously arranged so as to occupy a small space.” (The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London,Volume the Nineteenth (1850), p. lix)

The Plastischer Schul Atlas seems to have met with considerable success. Sets were also issued in English and French, and the atlas went through numerous editions at least until the late 19th century. Due to their fragile nature, all are scarce today.

OCLC 69088976 (Universiteit van Amsterdam), 634817465 (Staatliche Bibliothek Ansbach), 880326782 (Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library), and 224053626 (State Library of South Australia). Phillips, Atlases, 4183 (1854 German ed.) Espenhorst, Petermann’s Planet: a guide to German handatlases and their siblings throughout the world, 1800-1950, vol. ii, #1108. The Wardington Library, part ii, lot 419 (Sotheby’s, London, October 10th, 2006).