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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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Map of New York City from Henry William Blair's Henry William Blair, THE TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT: OR, THE CONFLICT BETWEEN MAN AND ALCOHOL. Boston: William E. Smythe Company, 1888.

A nation adrift “in the maelstrom of alcohol”

A jeremiad against the evils of alcohol, with an interesting thematic map demonstrating its prevalence in New York City. Born on a New Hampshire farm and orphaned at 12, Henry William Blair (1834-1920) never attended college but rose to become a lawyer, state representative, and U.S. congressman, then represented his home state in the Senate […]

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John Finzer & Bros., Louisville, Ky., OLD HONESTY NON-PARTISAN Political Map OF THE UNITED STATES SHOWING THE Presidential Vote of 188-0 AND Other Election Statistics. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1884.

A terrific little political map and chart, issued as a tobacco premium

A wonderful and very rare tobacco premium in the form of a thematic political map of the United States. 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 […]

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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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[ Temperance Journal ] Map of Yale from The New York Voice. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Jan. 6-Dec. 15, 1898. [with:] The New Voice. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, Dec. 22-29, 1898.

Full-year run of a leading Temperance journal … with maps!

A nearly-complete 1898 run of one of America’s “leading temperance journals” (Mott), including maps highlighting consumption in and around leading universities. Funk & Wagnalls published a weekly Temperance journal from 1884 to 1906, though under various titles and in a range of formats: For 1898 the first 50 issues were the eight-page broadsheet New York […]

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[Based on notes from Secretary of State to Ambassador of U.S.S.R.], U.S. AREAS AND MUNICIPALITIES CLOSED OR OPEN TO TRAVEL BY CERTAIN SOVIET CITIZENS AS OF NOVEMBER 11. 1957. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. State Department], January, 1958.

Unusual cartographic relic of the Cold War

An unusual cartographic relic of the Cold War, delineating areas of the United States off limits to travel by citizens of the Soviet Union as of late 1957. This very large two-sheet thematic map depicts the continental United States, with insets for the Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. Shading and a […]

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National Railway Publication Company, MAP OF THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD AND TRIBUTARY COUNTRY. Jay Cooke & Co., [prob. 1872.]

A particularly creative map for selling Northern Pacific Railroad lands

A rare persuasive map of the United States and Canada, issued by Jay Cooke & Co. and using a variety of unusual techniques to promote the sale of lands granted to the Northern Pacific Railroad. Background The Northern Pacific was chartered in 1864 and planned to build a rail line connecting the Great Lakes with […]

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Prepared under the direction of Charles Haskins Townsend / Records compiled by A. C. Watson / Draughtsman, R. W. Richmond, [Four maps showing the worldwide distribution of whaling catches between the mid 18th and early 20th centuries.] [New York: New York Zoological Society, 1935.]

Four whaling maps by Charles Haskins Townsend

A fascinating application of thematic mapping techniques to commercial whaling, by eminent American zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend (1859-1944). Townsend’s nearly 55-year career spanned both the public and private sectors. From 1883-1902 he held a variety of positions in the United States Fish Commission, then spent the next 35 years as Director of the New York […]

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S.P. Denison Del. / Robert A. Welcke Photo-Lith., MAP SHOWING LONG DISTANCE TELEPHONE Lines AND Metallic Circuit Connections American Telephone and Telegraph Co. New York: American Telephone and Telegraph, Jan. 1, 1890.

Unrecorded 1890 map of the American Telephone and Telegraph long-distance network

A large, early and extremely rare map of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company network as of New Year’s Day 1890. American Telephone & Telegraph (later AT&T) was established in 1885 as a subsidiary of Alexander Graham Bell’s American Bell Telephone Company, with the mission of developing the first commercially-viable long-distance network. The new firm […]

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