“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.

42 results, ordered by Publication Date

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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 […]

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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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1862 Charles Joseph Minard map of the Civil War-era cotton trade

Charles Joseph Minard map of the Civil War-era cotton trade

A great rarity of thematic mapmaking: a Charles Joseph Minard “flow map” tracking the impact of the American Civil War on the global cotton trade. Minard was one of the great 19th-century innovators in what Edward Tufte has called the “visual display of quantitative information.” Over the course of a quarter century he produced dozens of […]

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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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Map of the European telegraph network

A fascinating and scarce thematic map of the early European telegraph network, as it stood during the American Civil War. The first commercially-viable telegraphs were introduced almost simultaneously in the United States and England in the late 1830s. Nearly-instantaneous, long-distance communication posed an irresistible business opportunity, and a rush to establish lines ensued. On account of the […]

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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. […]

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Manuscript thematic map by Anton Roessler

A remarkable and apparently unique manuscript thematic map of American commercial relations by noted Texas map maker Anton Roessler. The map was produced in February 1868, soon after the opening of the trans-Atlantic Telegraph and just over a year before the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad. Anton Roessler is best remembered for his role in preserving […]

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Colorful, informative and rare as all get out

Perhaps best described as a “geopolitical compendium,” this impressive thematic map is printed on two sides, both featuring one or more central maps surrounding by a variety of charts. Some of these charts are rather imaginative, while one is downright brilliant. The recto bears a large political map of the United States, an extended description of […]

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A terrific little political map, issued as a tobacco premium

A wonderful and extremely rare tobacco premium in the form of a thematic political map and related charts. This piece was produced as a two-sided “premium” to promote Old Honesty Plug Tobacco, a brand produced by the Finzer Brothers of Louisville, Kentucky. Originally folded in eighths brochure-style but now flattened, one side bears the front and […]

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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 […]

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