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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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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 […]

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Second map in Valentine Seaman article on yellow fever in 3rd edition of volume I of Medical Repository

The Medical Repository, with groundbreaking yellow fever maps by Valentine Seaman

A scarce volume of early American medical history. With an important article by Valentine Seaman featuring two all-but unknown thematic maps of yellow fever outbreaks in Manhattan, generally accepted as the earliest published epidemiological maps and preceding Snow’s work on cholera by half a century. The Medical Repository was the first American medical journal, founded […]

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SITUATION 19 DEC 1944 [with similarly-titled sheets for December 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27-31, 1944]. [Belgium or France:] 664 Eng[inee]r Top[ographic] Corps, January, 1945.

Nine maps tracking the day-by-day progress of the Battle of Bastogne, printed in theatre within weeks of the battle… an amazing survival

An extremely rare set of plans depicting the day-by-day progress of the December 1944 Battle of Bastogne, remarkable for their fine-grained detail, mix of highly-technical and pictorial features, and compilation in theatre within weeks of the battle. The story of the siege is well known: Bastogne was a major crossroads in the Ardennes, its capture […]

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Bruce C. Heezen and Marie Tharp, PHYSIOGRAPHIC DIAGRAM ATLANTIC OCEAN SHEET 1. [New York]: Lamont Geological Observatory (Columbia University), 1957. In “C. H. Elmendorf and Bruce C. Heezen, “Oceanographic Information for Engineering Submarine Cable Systems”, The Bell System Technical Journal, vol. XXXVI no. 5 (Sept. 1957), pp. 1047-1093. The whole bound in to the 1957 volume of the Journal.

Marie Tharp’s revolutionary physiographic map of the North Atlantic

A revolutionary 1957 thematic map of the North Atlantic Basin by geologists Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen, which contributed greatly to acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. The map depicts the North Atlantic Ocean and surrounding basin, including most of eastern North America, with landmasses in yellow and submerged regions in […]

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[ Bathymetric chart ] Made Available by A. B. Rechnitzer and R. D. Terry Deep Submergence Systems / Staff Artist, Ken Hodges, BATHYMETRY OF THE PACIFIC BASIN. Anaheim, CA: North American Aviation/Autonetics, 1965.

Spectacular bathymetric chart of the Pacific Basin

Put simply, a bathymetric chart is a form of thematic map depicting submerged topography, just as topographic maps depict terrestrial topography. This is usually accomplished by means of contour lines, often augmented by differential shading or coloring to highlight variations in depth. The earliest bathymetric charts were based on compilations of hundreds or thousands of […]

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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. […]

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Glen F. Brown, Richard A. Bramkamp, Leon F. Ramirez, Roy O. Jackson, Simon H. Kfoury, et al., ARABIAN PENINSULA [:] MISCELLANEOUS GEOLOGIC INVESTIGATIONS MAP I-270 B-1. Washington, D.C.: The Survey (U.S. Geological Society), 1958.

A foundation map of the 20th-century petroleum industry

The scarce 1958 first edition of this landmark oil map of Saudi Arabia, the product of a remarkable partnership between the Saudi and American governments, Saudi Aramco, and the U.S. Geological Survey. This is one of the most influential oil maps ever produced, being the first accurate and comprehensive general oil map of the entire […]

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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 […]

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Engineer Reproduction Plant, U. S. Army / Mississippi River Commission, LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER [:] EARLY STREAM CHANNELS AT APPROXIMATE HALF-CENTURY INTERVALS [:] CAIRO, ILL. TO BATON ROUGE, LA. MILE 0 TO MILE 842. Washington, D.C.: Corps of Engineers, 1938.

A rare 50-foot map of the shifting channels of the Mississippi

A rare and spectacular set of thematic maps depicting historical changes in the channels of the Mississippi River, issued in 1938 by the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission. Those living on the banks of the Mississippi have always been blessed by its fertile alluvial plain and ready water access to much of […]

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