The first historical atlas of the United States, by pioneering educator Emma Willard who in the service of her broader mission became America’s first female map maker. Willard’s atlas features twelve single- or double-sheet maps, beginning with an “introductory map” of the “locations and wanderings of the aboriginal tribes.” Though Native American peoples had long […]
With the rise of interest in data visualization, persuasive mapping and women’s contributions to cartography, Emma Willard has moved to the front and center of both map collecting and the history of cartography. Born in 1787 in Berlin, Connecticut, Emma Willard took a teaching job in her hometown while still a teenager. Dissatisfaction with the educational opportunities available to women led her in 1815 to establish the Middlebury (Vermont) Female Seminary, before leaving in 1821 to found the Troy (New York) Female Seminary, “which soon became … one of the country’s finest institutions of female education” (Schulten, p. 18) and is still in operation today. Willard remained at Troy until 1838, then left the school in charge of her son and daughter in law. Her later years were spent writing and traveling around America advocating for the cause of women’s education.Even while at Middlebury Willard had experimented with innovative approaches to visualizing the interplay of history and geography, as may be seen in this spectacular “Book of Penmanship” produced by one Frances Henshaw.Certainly by the 1820s, Willard had developed a sustained critique of traditional methods used to teach geography and history, which emphasized rote memorization largely through the study of densely-worded texts and maps. American educators had been issuing geographic and historic works for young people at least as early as Jedediah Morse’s Geography Made Easy (1784) and American Geography (1789), but these tended to feature at most one or two small maps. And, worse still, text and map tended to be disconnected, instead of mutually reinforcing as Willard believed they should be.
“[Willard] did not take issue with the goal of memorization, as later educators would, but instead faulted existing learning methods and reformulated the presentation of information. The distinction is important, for she believed that the visual preceded the verbal. Information presented spatially and visually would facilitate memory by attaching images to the mind through the eyes….
Over the course of her long career Willard sought to remedy this gap by publishing numerous atlases, histories and geographies embodying her distinctive educational techniques. In particular, her graphics are striking for their innovative and varied attempts to integrate historical narrative and image. An example of this was her Series of Maps to Accompany Willard’s History of the United States (1826). Here Willard offered a sequence of seven maps providing “snapshots” of the United States at different times, from the pre-Colombian period to the present-day. Taken together they depict beautifully the “unfolding” of American history over the North American landscape.Another superb example of Willard’s distinctive approach is her 1846 Temple of Time, which stands out for its size, complexity and rarity. This is an intricate flow diagram, ensconced within the framework of an Ionic Temple, that conveys the rise and fall of empires while providing a mnemonic tool for students to recall events and major historical figures.To learn more about Emma Willard, her educational philosophy and her innovative maps, see chapter 1 of Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.) Susan also offers links high-resolution images of several Emma Willard educational maps and charts at her Mapping the Nation website.