Geography Isn’t Sacred in the Playful World of Pictorial Maps

A new book highlights an occasionally twisted, often amusing, always colorful tradition of hand-drawn cartography.

The maps in the slideshow above represent an underappreciated form of American visual art: the pictorial map. They’re maps designed to draw you in and—as often as not—try to sell you something, whether it’s a tropical vacation, a brand of bourbon, or a version of the American dream.

Pictorial maps thrived in the United States from the 1920s to the ’60s, says Stephen Hornsby, a professor of geography at the University of Maine and author of a new book, Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps. “They’re a manifestation of the enormous vibrancy of American popular culture,” Hornsby says.

Many of the maps featured in his book were made by companies and printed on posters or brochures as a form of advertising. Others were made by state tourist boards and local chambers of commerce trying to lure visitors and businesses to their area. Still others were made to appeal to schoolchildren and spark an interest in far-off people and places.

Some are geographically accurate; others skew geography for the sake of simplicity or to make a point. The 1947 map at the top of this post, titled Map of the United States as Californians See It, compresses the eastern and central U.S. and puts most of the country inside the Los Angeles city limit. A bold yellow arrow connects New York City with the Golden State, claiming “About 200 delightful easy miles.”

View Images

California beckons with many charms—including some borrowed from other places —in this detail from the map at the top of this post.

An angelic weatherman and a giant “Kissin’ sun” (the detail above) watch over California, which has co-opted several iconic attractions from other places, including Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Everest.

Meanwhile a thin, wavy black arrow labeled “17,000 dangerous miles” points to Florida, a black swamp filled with skeletons, a man-eating alligator, and—stranger still—a shivering Eskimo and penguin.

That kind of playfulness is common in pictorial maps. “They are great fun,” Hornsby says. “They reflect a pride in community and the usual American cheerful optimism, which is very appealing.”

Hornsby’s love of pictorial maps has roots in his childhood. His family lived in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) because his father was in the British Royal Air Force, which had a base there. Hornsby’s mother, a teacher, had a pictorial map of the island drawn by the influential British graphic artist MacDonald Gill. The map is lavishly illustrated with drawings of leopards, elephants, and other animals. Colorful ships ply the waters off the island’s coast. “I was fascinated by the imagery,” Hornsby says.

Pictorial maps weren’t a suitably serious topic of study for a graduate student in geography, so apart from collecting a few of them here and there, Hornsby mostly put his interest aside as he built his career. A sabbatical in 2013 gave him the opportunity to revisit them and do the research for the book.

In it, he profiles Gill and other influential artists, and chronicles the rise and fall of pictorial mapping, which he argues took off in the ’20s and reached its creative zenith in mid-20th century America. “In a sense they reflect the emergence of the United States as a world power,” he says. “The U.S. economy was revving up, and you have lots of money for advertising coming from commerce and industry.”

At the same time, says Hornsby, the work of European illustrators like Gill and the Art Deco movement were making an impression on American designers.

View Images

This 1928 map advertises a cruise offered by the Panama Mail Steamship Company.

Pictorial mapping continued to thrive through the Depression and World War II (you can see an example of one of the many WWII-era maps in the slideshow above). But by the 1960s, photography was taking over American advertising, and many of the illustrators best known for pictorial maps were nearing the ends of their careers. Although some cartographers and artists still make fantastic pictorial maps today, the genre never regained its midcentury popularity.

In the gallery above you can see a small sample of the more than 150 maps in Hornsby’s book, which itself is merely a tiny sample of thousands of pictorial maps held at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. “The book is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hornsby says.