First fascicle of the first cerographic atlas

Sidney Edwards Morse & Samuel Breese, THE CEROGRAPHIC ATLAS OF THE UNITED STATES. New York: Sidney E. Morse & Co., 1842.
Folio (18”h x 14 ¼”w), first part only. General title within an ornamental border, printed on yellow wrappers; 6 uncoloured cerographic maps. Minor soiling and edge wear, else excellent.

The first fascicle of Morse’s United States atlas, The Cerographic Atlas of the United States, issued in parts (fascicles) as a supplement to the New York Observer. Produced by an experimental process, the publisher’s plan to produce quickly the completed atlas were thwarted; the second part appeared only in 1843, and the completed atlas in 1845. The atlas is scarce on the market; the individual parts even more so.

Sidney Edwards Morse (1794-1871) was second son and business partner of Jedidiah Morse, one of the founders of geographical publishing in the United States. After his father’s death Morse moved to New York City where, with his brother Richard, he founded the New York Observer. He maintained however his interest in geographical publications and maps. In the late 1830s he conceived a new engraving and printing process for producing maps—cerography, a process involving drawing a map in wax and then transferring the image to a printing plate. The particular benefit was that cerography came close to matching the precision possible from a copperplate, and far superior to that from a woodblock or lithography, but at a fraction of the expense; a secondary benefit was that a cerographic plate could easily be combined with text, for illustrating books and newspapers, in a way that a copperplate could not; further, with the new advances in printing presses, many thousands could be printed in a single day, compared to a few hundred from a standard plate.

The first experimental maps appeared in June 1839. The earliest recorded are a trial printing of a map of the environs of New York and a map of Connecticut printed in the New York Observer of June 29, 1839.

This fascicle was issued in 1842, in yellow printed paper wrappers bearing the title, this intended as a general title for the completed atlas, the other leaves bearing advertisements and an editorial note giving lengthy description of cerography and the author’s publishing plans, and six cerographic maps—Vermont and New Hampshire; Connecticut; New Jersey; Maryland and Delaware; Virginia and Ohio. It appears to be complete as issued, though other copies, such as the Rumsey copy, contains also maps of Maine and Iowa.

Certainly the resultant maps are much superior in execution and appearance to wood engraved maps and in definition to lithographs. While they do not quite meet the vaunted claim of matching copperplate maps, they admirably meet the requirements of enabling production of cheap maps, Morse commenting,

“If the eight maps now sent out had been printed from copper plates, the subscription price, at the rates generally charged in England and the United States for maps of the same size, neither colored nor bound; would amount, for 17,000 copies, (the number necessary to supply the subscribers of the New-York Observer,) to upwards of twenty-five thousand dollars!”

The method excited great fanfare in the newspapers of the day but the announcement was premature. In the puff piece in the inside of these wrappers, describing cerography, Morse admitted

“THE Editors … have at length the pleasure of presenting their subscribers with the first number of the Cerographic Atlas. In preparing it, difficulties have been encountered of which the public can form no adequate conception. CEROGRAPHY is a new art, and few can understand the delusive appearance which new inventions are apt to assume, in almost every stage of their progress. It is more than seven years since the senior editor of the Observer conceived the thought of a new method of engraving, which should combine, in a good degree, the peculiar advantages of each of the old methods … It seemed to him, that in a few weeks, and at an expense of less than one hundred dollars, such an invention could be perfected! It was not, however, till after nearly five years, and the expenditure of several thousand dollars, that he was able to complete the Cerographic map of Connecticut, which was published in the Observer of June 29, 1839; and since that time several thousand dollars more have been expended in improving the art, and in executing the plates now in progress.”

In the preparation of the maps Morse worked closely with the leading New York map-engravers, mapmakers and publishers “Sherman & Smith”, George Edwin Sherman and John Calvin Smith, to ensure that the maps were as up-to-date as possible.

Altogether The Cerographic Atlas is a remarkable story of American ingenuity bedevilled by the teething problems inherent in commercializing a new production process. In the puff-piece, Morse talked of the need to produce 17,000 of this first fascicle for each of the New York Observer’s subscribers, but the significant delays in completion would have meant that many sets were never made up, and very many individual parts must have been lost (damaged or destroyed) before the atlas was completed.

Individual fascicles are rare both in institutional collections and in the marketplace. OCLC, as often the case, is difficult to parse, but the only other institutional location of this separate fascicle traced is the deposit copy at the Library of Congress; the only readily identifiable complete copies of the atlas assembled from the parts, retaining the original wrappers for the subsidiary parts, are in the Library of Congress and the Rumsey Collection, with incomplete sets in the Library of Congress and Yale. The vast majority of the copies located are formed of the first title (only) and thirty-two maps and might be assembled from the three fascicles with the wrappers discarded, but are more likely bound and sold by the publisher on completion in 1845, such as those at Harvard, Clements, New York Public, Newberry, and others.

Rumsey 4180 for this fascicle, but with eight maps. This fascicle not apparently in OCLC. OCLC28717487 and 210081747 give numerous institutional holdings of the Atlas. See Phillips, Atlases, Vol. I #1383 for the complete Cerographic Atlas.