Striking pictorial maps tell the story of 20th-century America

Published 9th August 2017
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Striking pictorial maps tell the story of 20th-century America
Written by Clive Martin, CNN
America is so vast, so all-encompassing, so overwhelming that perhaps it can never be truly understood. Any one country that manages to fit in the Florida Gulf Coast and the Montana Glaciers, the Mojave and Manhattan is always going to be a hard one to pin down.
In the early 20th century America was even less understood, and as this untapped country was slowly conquered and commodified by airlines, bootleggers, oil companies and media empires there was a boom in the manufacture of pictorial maps. These colorful, illustrated, annotated guides showed the public new opportunities for travel and commerce -- as well as the potential dangers of alcohol and crime.
Although they were hugely prominent in American culture of the time, their importance has been largely overlooked. However, a new book, "Picturing America: The Golden Age Of Pictorial Maps" by geographer Stephen J. Hornsby, examines how these illustrated maps once captured the image of America.
CNN: What is it about these maps that intrigues you so much?
Stephen J. Hornsby: I think they really take the viewer into a particular place, region or country. They're three-dimensional, so you get a sense of being able to wonder around them, unlike topographic maps, which have objective information to help you find your way ... These maps are not like that at all. They contain whatever the creator wants to give you.
There's often advertising behind many of these maps, which determines what's shown on it. So if you're trying to sell tourism in a particular part of the United States, they'll show its historical impotence, its landscape ... the collective memory of it. A lot of it is down to the designer's creative imagination to draw the viewer in.
Why was America such a force in the history of pictorial maps?
The United States was booming in the 1920s ... The economy was going great so there was money for advertising. The influence of designers like MacDonald Gill, along with the French Art Nouveau had started to shape commercial design. By the mid-1920s there was swirl of influences that coming into places like New York, which intrigued commercial designers.
They picked up on the pictorial map as a way of selling products, then they just ran with it. It's an enormous country so there were many designers ... Almost every state had some kind of commercial designer who could churn out these maps, so very quickly we're getting hundreds and thousands of them being printed.
Is there something about America that particularly lends itself to the art of pictorial maps?
Certainly there's enormous variety in the United States, so you get these very different images. Somewhere like Miami can be shown as a sun-drenched paradise compared to, say, industrial Ohio ... so there's great potential for designers to work with these different areas and different imaginaries of the United States.
There's also the power of American popular culture. Interestingly, Walt Disney picked up on this way of showing his cartoon characters very early, and used pictorial maps to sell Disneyland in the 1950s.
How did this golden era come to an end?
The golden era was really in the '20s and '30s, and then there was WWII. Some very powerful maps were produced during the war ... but by the '50s and certainly the '60s, it's waning. The pioneering generation of artists are retiring or passing away, and you've got new ways of selling products, like color photography, which was coming in. Instead of having an artist showing you a rather expensive image of an area, you can just do a tourist brochure with photographs.
Do you think there is a place for artist making these maps, when the whole world is on Google Maps?
Google Maps gives you that satellite view, but what pictorial maps can offer is a whole set of relations that are not really there on the internet. I know you can put layers of information on Google Maps ... but there isn't that kind of sophistication or subtlety you get with an artist's creation.
Artists are people that knew the history, the culture, what's exciting people about a place ... so they could create an image that told you about that place very quickly. I don't think we're anywhere near that on Google.
"Picturing America: The Golden Age Of Pictorial Maps" by Stephen J. Hornsby, published by University of Chicago Press, is out now.