A most unusual schoolboy map of Essex Massachusetts

Sidney Low (or Lowe), MAP OF ESSEX. [Essex, Mass?], 1849.
Manuscript in watercolor, with place names in pencil and/or ink, 28”h x 20 1/8”w at sheet edge. Some pigments faded, with extensive annotations all-but illegible, scattered soiling and generalized fly-speckling. Paper-pulp reinforcements to thin areas on verso.

A striking manuscript map of Essex Massachusetts drawn in 1849 by local schoolboy Sidney Lowe (1833-1882). The large size, bold color scheme and highly-local subject matter all combine to make the map a most unusual example of the “schoolboy” genre.

Young Sidney’s map of Essex is remarkable for its bold and idiosyncratic use of color: a Prussian blue for the town’s boundaries, forest green for its roads, and black and yellow(!!!) for Chebacco Lake, the Ipswich River and other bodies of water. Thinner red lines almost certainly the limits of saltmarshes and wetlands, which to this day occupy much of the town’s landscape. The map was originally dotted with dozens of tiny symbols for buildings and the names of their occupants, but these have long since faded to near-illegibility, although some names can still be read under magnification. The whole is adorned by a ruled border in blue and red and a striking multihued compass rose indicating both geographic and magnetic north. In all, in spite of the condition issues, a striking production and a particularly unusual example of schoolboy work.

The map is signed “Sidney Lowe [few letters illegible] 1849.”  A man of that name (often rendered “Low”) was born in Essex on July 7, 1833 to farmers David and Betsy Low. The 1850 census describes him as the fourth of five children, as having attended school in the past year, and working as a farmer. In 1857 he married Abby Hooper Burnham, also of Essex, and the 1860 census describes him as a shoemaker and the father of Lizzie, then one year old. However, by 1870 he the Salem City Directory lists him once again as farmer; whether he failed as a shoemaker, or worked in both occupations simultaneously, is not possible to say. By 1875 he had moved to nearby Pepperell, as a Boston Globe article mentions his election to the Executive Committee of the local Farmers and Mechanics’ Club (Jan. 25, 1875, p. 8) He died of pneumonia in 1882 and was buried in Pepperell’s Spring Street cemetery.

Lowe was just 16 at the time he drew this map, but there is no evidence that either he or his father was a surveyor. It is most likely, therefore, that he copied—or perhaps adapted—the map from an earlier prototype, presumably in fulfillment of a school assignment. He might have used either one of the printed maps of Essex County available at the time, or perhaps a survey of Essex conducted in the early 1830s at the behest of the Massachusetts legislature in service of a state mapping project.

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. The source maps were usually from commercially-published atlases, as school geography texts did not begin to proliferate until the late 1810s. 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 many of whom little or no other historical trace remains.

Provenance and references
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.

Owned in partnership with James Arsenault & Company of Arrowsic, Maine.