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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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Jacob Skeen, Kentucky Lith. & Printing Co., GENEALOGICAL CHRONOLOGICAL AND GEOGRAPHICAL CHART. EMBRACING BIBLICAL AND PROFANE HISTORY OF ANCIENT TIMES FROM ADAM TO CHRIST. Louisville, KY: Skeen Chart Co. Limited, February 1887.

A somewhat mysterious Shaker infographic

A remarkable infographic, perhaps designed in the 1880s as an educational tool to help arrest the decline of the Shaker Church. The chart features a timeline of major Biblical figures and ancient empires; genealogical charts for the descendants of Adam and Eve, Noah, King David, Herod and others; charts listing the miracles and parables of […]

$4,500
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The American Nuclear Society, COMMERCIAL NUCLEAR POWER STATIONS IN THE UNITED STATES—OPERABLE, UNDER CONSTRUCTION OR ORDERED—AUGUST 1, 1985. La Grange Park, IL: American Nuclear Society, 1985.

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 […]

$395
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T[homas] Campbell-Copeland], ‘“The Battle-Ground of the Presidential Election[:] Illustrated in a Series of Charts Showing the Political Complexion of the United States by States, an of the Doubtful States by Counties.” [in:] Harper’s Weekly vol. XXXII no. 1659 (Oct. 6, 1888). New York: Harper & Brothers, Oct. 6, 1888.

Mapping the battleground states of the 1888 presidential election

A fascinating set of thematic maps previewing the battleground states in the 1888 presidential election, which pitted incumbent Grover Cleveland, a New York Democrat, against Indiana Republican Benjamin Harrison. The maps were published as a supplement to the Oct. 6, 1888 Harper’s Weekly, accompanying an article of the same title by journalist and statistician T. […]

$750
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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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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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