Aside from the intrinsic appeal, these schoolboy maps are significant in having been drawn essentially simultaneously by two young men at the “Washington Academy.” The Academy may have been located in Maryland or Virginia, as the maps were purchased at a Virginia auction, and a search locates a William G. Krebs in Baltimore in the years following. Both are dated “Oct. 13, 1814” and are, apart from minor differences, all-but identical, evidence of a process in which students were expected to copy from “template” maps supplied by their teachers.
We have been unable to identify with certainty the prototype on which these maps were based. The only one of the same title of which we are aware is A NEW AND CORRECT MAP of the WORLD According to the latest Discoveries 1801, issued in Thomas Brown’s General Atlas (Edinburgh, 1808). However, the manuscripts depict the southern states extending to the Mississippi, with no sign of Kentucky (1792) or Tennessee (1796), suggesting they were based on a somewhat earlier map.
From the 1790s through the 1830s map copying was an important element of American primary education, valued for imparting geographical knowledge and providing excellent practice in drawing and penmanship (Schulten, p. 186). Schulten argues, however, that the technique was also valued as a tool for developing character: “this task was often less about cartographic conceptualization than demonstrating the discipline and control required to replicate or emulate a map.” (ibid., p. 199)
These maps were drawn or embroidered, to some extent by boys but primarily by girls, as the education of the former tended to place a greater emphasis on navigation and surveying than on geography. (ibid., pp. 190-191) The source maps were usually from commercially-published atlases, as school geography texts did not begin to proliferate until the late 1810s. (ibid., p. 192) The practice began to decline in the 1830s, under the influence of educational theorists such as Pestalozzi, who argued that geographic education should be built on direct, local observation “rather than beginning with the most abstract concept of astronomical and world geography.” (ibid., p. 217)
The surviving examples of the genre vary wildly: Subject matter includes states, regions, countries, continents and the world; sizes range from a notebook page to large productions on multiple joined sheets; decorative styles range from plain to highly adorned with calligraphic, botanical and/or patriotic ornamentation; and quality of execution ranges from extremely crude—as if dashed off at the last minute to fulfill an assignment–to highly refined. All are, however, interesting as examples of a certain pedagogical model and as windows into the minds of young Americans for whom little or no other historical trace remains.
For background see Susan Schulten, “Map Drawing, Graphic Literacy, and Pedagogy in the Early Republic,” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 57 no. 2 (May 2017), pp. 185-220.
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