“Thematic map” and “thematic cartography” are phrases that get tossed around a bit casually. To put things drily, though, a thematic map uses design elements to depict the distribution of one or more phenomena across a geographic area.  Despite the dry definition, though, thematic maps are one of the most interesting emerging areas of map collecting.

Thematic mapping dates back at least to the late 18th century, as with this early economic map of Europe. Arguably it goes back even further, to the earliest sea charts that showed phenomena such as depth soundings.  But the field really took off in the 19th century, when the mutually-reinforcing requirements of growing government bureaucracies and science–including the social sciences–stimulated both demand for data and the development of means for gathering, collating and depicting it.

Pretty much anything can be the subject of a thematic map: Here at Boston Rare Maps, for example, we have handled thematic maps of weather in the Indian Ocean, the spread of cholera, the Antebellum cotton trade, and camps of the Soviet Gulag. Despite the obvious differences, what all have in common is that they depict some phenomenon that can be both located and counted.

Moving from the relatively straightforward depiction of place names, topographical features, roads and so on to the presentation of thematic data can present the mapmaker with all sorts of graphic design challenges.  The best thematic maps combine intellectual clarity, visual efficiency and aesthetic appeal to create compelling, even unforgettable images such as this map using simple geometric figures to encodes data for the color, range, frequency and sweep of dozens of British lighthouses.



41 results, ordered by Publication Date

Available Inventory

Early attempt to map world languages… no copies in American libraries?

A rare work of comparative linguistics, of great interest to map collectors for being an early attempt to use thematic mapping to illustrate the distribution of and relationships between world languages. Author Gottfried Hensel (1687-1767) was a German scholar of linguistics working in Hirschberg in Lower Silesia (now southwestern Poland). The title of his work translates […]

View Details

Sold Listings

Color printing. [Jacques-Fabien] Gautier [D’Agoty] / Gautier fils (engraver), CARTE ABR[E]GEE du CANADA levee sur les lieux par M.*** resident a Quebec année 1754. Paris: [Gautier], 1755.

18th-century cartographic color printing, by Gautier D’Agoty

A rare and fascinating thematic map of northeastern North America by a French artist, printer, anatomist and crackpot geologist, remarkable also as an early example of color printing. A former pupil of Jacob Christoph Le Blon, and a pioneer in color-printing, Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty (1717-1785) improved on the methods of his teacher by developing […]

View Details

The first attempt at economic mapping

A detailed thematic map illustrating European agricultural, extractive and manufacturing activity at the end of the 18th century. Thought to be the earliest example of economic mapping. Crome’s map illustrates the distribution across Europe of the production of 56 commodities and other products, including gold, copper, wine, fruit, salt, hemp, silk, horses, and so on. The symbols for each […]

View Details

Map demonstrating the “Impolicy of Slavery”

A rare thematic map delivering an economic argument for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.   PJ Mode provides a most helpful explanation of the map and its maker: “This polemic map argues that import prohibitions and high duties on sugar were artificially inflating prices and inhibiting manufacturing in England. It was published by J. […]

View Details
Moses Greenleaf, ATLAS ACCOMPANYING GREENLEAF’S MAP AND STATISTICAL SURVEY OF MAINE… Portland: Shirley & Hyde, [1829].

Moses Greenleaf atlas of Maine… “unparalleled in its time” (Thompson)

A Maine rarity, being the Moses Greenleaf state atlas of 1829. Greenleaf was “a champion of central Maine development, an ardent supporter of statehood, an early and vocal advocate of Maine’s claim in the Northeastern Boundary Controversy, an accurate compiler of statistics and data about Maine, and a careful and dedicated cartographer of maps of […]

View Details
1829 Emma Willard "A SERIES OF MAPS TO WILLARD’S History of the United States"

A landmark historical atlas by Emma Willard, America’s first female map maker

The first historical atlas of the United States, by Emma Willard, a pioneering educator 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 […]

View Details
Emma Willard Series of Maps to Willard's History of the United States

A landmark historical atlas by Emma Willard, America’s first female map maker

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 […]

View Details

Rare cholera map of the first and second Pandemics

A superb thematic map depicting the spread of cholera across Eurasia in the early 19th century. Separately published, extremely rare, and in its way horrifying. Perhaps better than any other contemporary map, this work by Carl Ferdinand Weiland (1782-1847) depicts the geographic progress of cholera across Eurasia and the Horn of Africa.  It employs color coding to […]

View Details

A “sweeping application of thematic cartography”

First edition of d’Angeville’s revolutionary publication, the first major work arranged around thematic maps. D’Angeville (1796-1856) can be credited with refining and expanding the application of the “chloropleth” map first developed by his predecessors Baron Charles Dupin (1784-1873) and Andre-Michel Guerry (1802-1866). These are maps in which areas are shaded or patterned in proportion to the […]

View Details
1856 National Political Map

National Political Map documenting the high-stakes Election of 1856

A are persuasive map issued during the 1856 presidential campaign, suggesting the threat posed by the extension of slavery into the West after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Owned in partnership with Barry Ruderman Antique Maps. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act established two new territories and repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had hitherto prohibited slavery in […]

View Details