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A[ugust] F[riedrich] W[ilhelm] Crome / F.A. Pingeling Sculpsit Hamburg, NEUE CARTE VON EUROPA welch die merkwürdigsten Producte und vernehmsten Handelsplätze dem Flächen-Inhalt aller Europäischen Länder…. Dessau, 1782.“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.



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Timothy Edward Downs, PC Computing[:] Road Map to the Internet. New York: Ziff-Davis, 1994.

Timothy Edward Downs maps the Internet in 1994

Possibly the first map of the Internet for popular consumption, designed by legendary technical artist Timothy Edward Downs as a bonus for purchasers of PC Computing magazine.  PC Computing and Timothy Edward Downs Back in the early nineties PC Magazine, PC World and PC Computing were in a three-way race for subscribers and newsstand sales. […]

$2,500
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[F.E. Cheeseman], Pigskin Panorama: ALBERT RICHARD FOOTBALL MAP. Milwaukee, WI: Albert Richard, 1939.

The American football scene in 1939: Albert Richard’s Pigskin Panorama

Pigskin Panorama is an exuberant and decorative Art Deco-style pictorial map of the American football scene in 1939, when the college game was still dominant. The map uses vignettes of football players in action poses to show the locations of hundreds of collegiate teams around the United States, all color coded by conference. The border […]

$850
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Thematic map promoting Louisiana agriculture

This large, informative and surprisingly scarce broadside was an official document published by the Louisiana State Board of Agriculture and Immigration. The Board provided both regulation and technical support to the state’s agricultural sector while promoting its advantages to the rest of the country. For the decade beginning in 1896 its Commissioner was Jordan Gray Lee […]

$975
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1969 War Resisters League map of the American nuclear industrial complex

Thematic map of the American nuclear complex by the War Resisters League

A compelling persuasive map by the War Resisters League, highlighting the pervasiveness of the American nuclear complex, emphasizing the close link between civilian and military applications of nuclear energy, and calling for grassroots mobilization. The poster features a thematic map of the United States covered with symbols indicating nuclear facilities, the shape and color of […]

$495
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Isaac Don Levine, “GULAG”—SLAVERY, INC. THE DOCUMENTED MAP OF FORCED LABOR CAMPS IN SOVIET RUSSIA[.] New Edition (1951)… New York: Free Trade Union Committee of the American Federation of Labor, 1951.

Anti-Communist propaganda map of the Soviet Gulag

A rare and chilling relic of the Cold War, being a “persuasive map” published with covert CIA support and documenting the vast extent of the Soviet Gulag system. So effective that many tens of thousands of copies of this and similar maps were distributed worldwide. The Gulag was created under Vladimir Lenin almost immediately after […]

$1,250
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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 […]

$3,500
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A[ugust] F[riedrich] W[ilhelm] Crome / F.A. Pingeling Sculpsit Hamburg, NEUE CARTE VON EUROPA welch die merkwürdigsten Producte und vernehmsten Handelsplätze dem Flächen-Inhalt aller Europäischen Länder…. Dessau, 1782.

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 […]

$1,500
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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 […]

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