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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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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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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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[ 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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Federal Communications Commission Engineering Department International Division, Maps of Radiotelegraph and Radiotelephone Circuits in Active Operation Between the United States and Territorial Possessions and Foreign Countries. [Washington, D.C.:] Federal Communications Commission, July 16, 1945.

Rare atlas of global telecommunications, issued on the day of the Trinity Test

A rare atlas of global telecommunications links between the United States and the rest of the world, issued at the very end of the Second World War. The Communications Act of 1934 codified the Federal Government’s power to regulate all wire-based and wireless communications and their corporate operators. Broadly speaking, the goals of the Act […]

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Map of United States nuclear power plants in 1985

An interesting look at the state of the nuclear power industry in the United States, just six years after the disaster at Three Mile Island. This outline map of the country uses four distinct symbols to show the locations of nuclear power plants in operation, under construction, on order, or “postponed indefinitely” as of August […]

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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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E. McD.  Johnstone / Dickman-Jones Co. Lith., THE UNIQUE MAP OF CALIFORNIA. San Francisco: Southern Pacific Company and the State Board of Trade of California, [ca. 1888.]

The Unique Map of California

A very scarce map of California, combining attractive color, imagery, thematic and persuasive elements to yield a decorative and promotional tour de force.   This remarkable promotional map depicts each California county, along with its acreage, primary agricultural products and extractive industries.  Superimposed on the map are no fewer than 20 pictorial vignettes emphasize both the […]

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