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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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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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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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E. R. Pulling, M.D. assisted by F.J. Randall, Sanitary and Social Chart OF THE FOURTH WARD OF THE CITY OF NEW-YORK To accompany a report of the 4TH SANITARY INSPECTION DISTRICT Made to the Council of Hygiene of the CITIZENS’ ASSOCIATION. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1865.

Pioneering Sanitary and Social Chart of New York City’s Fourth Ward

A rare and pioneering 1865 thematic public-health map of New York City’s Fourth Ward. Both a fascinating cartographic artifact of the City’s growing pains and an interesting bridge between earlier epidemiological maps by Snow and others, and later treatments of social conditions such as Addams’ Hull House Maps and Booth’s London Poverty Maps. Roughly speaking, […]

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[Untitled map of the United States describing the organization and missionary activities of the Episcopal Church.] [Boston area?], [prob. 1899].

Hand-drawn map of the United States on cloth, describing the missionary activities of the Episcopal Church at the turn of the 20th century

A large and interesting hand-painted thematic map of the United States describing the organization and missionary activities of the Episcopal Church at the turn of the 20th century. The map depicts the United States, with states individually colored and their boundaries outlined. Major cities are identified, as are quite a few Indian reservations, and a […]

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Annie G. Lyle and Archive Rice, Political Sentiment Map Of United States [:] WHAT POLITICIANS DON’T KNOW. San Francisco and Washington, D. C., 1931.

Crunching electoral data to re-elect Herbert Hoover

An extremely rare broadside by two fans of Herbert Hoover, analyzing the results of the 1928 presidential election and revealing some of the less appealing elements of the politics of Prohibition. The 1928 election was fought between Democrat Al Smith, Governor of New York, and Republican Herbert Hoover, an engineer, businessman and Secretary of Commerce […]

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