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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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Compiled, drawn & published by Richard F[riend] Lufkin, Chamber of Commerce Bldg., Boston, RADIO BROADCAST STATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES & CANADA. Boston: Richard F. Lufkin, 1927.

1927 map of American radio stations

An unrecorded thematic map of the United States listing the locations and call letters of American radio stations in 1927. Each circle on the map bears call letters identifying a single station, and insets are used for urban areas with a high density of broadcasters, as for example in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. […]

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Four anti-war maps by the War Resisters League (last of 10 sets!)

Research by Judy Kowalok & Michael Marsh / Design by Rick Bickhart, ARMS ACROSS AMERICA[:] WAGING THIRD WORLD WAR. New York: War Resisters League, August 1989.  Lithographic map printed in colors on coated stock, chart printed in blue on verso, 34”h x 22”w at sheet edge. Very faint discoloration along edges, else excellent. OCLC 41875007 […]

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Prepared in the Office of the President, Mississippi River Commission / Engineer Reproduction Plant, U. S. Army, LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER STREAM CHANNELS 1930-1932 AND 1940-1941 CAIRO, ILL. TO BATON ROUGE, LA. Vicksburg: Mississippi River Commission, 1941.

A 50-foot map of the shifting channels of the Lower Mississippi River

A mammoth and very rare set of thematic maps depicting historical changes in the channels of the Mississippi River, issued in 1941 by the Mississippi River Commission. Background Those living on the banks of the Mississippi have always been blessed by its fertile alluvial plain and ready water access to much of the American interior […]

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[ Nuclear materials ] NUCLEAR THREATS TO THE BAY AREA. Point Reyes Station: Pelican Alliance for Safe Energy, 1981.

Nuclear materials threaten the Bay Area

A rare 1981 persuasive map highlighting the pervasive presence of nuclear materials in civilian and military facilities around the San Francisco Bay Area.  It was published by the Pelican Alliance for Safe Energy, an anti-nuclear group based in Point Reyes and active from the late 1970s into the mid-1980s. “If you live in the Bay […]

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Ca 1920s New England Telephone Telegraph atlas of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island

Composite atlas of the New England telephone network in the 1920s

A composite atlas of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) quads of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, massively annotated by hand to depict the regional telephone network, probably in the mid-1920s. This remarkable thematic atlas was compiled by engineers of New England Telephone & Telegraph working at its Southern Division headquarters at 234 Washington Street in Providence, […]

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