Archive for August, 2011

I have loved reference works since I was a child.  I was the kind of kid who would set my little globe on my desk, spin it, and point my finger at it at random, then read about whatever place turned up.  I would read my family’s encyclopaedia volumes like they were books, and look through the atlas and the World Books, sponging up the information contained within.  So it is natural that I have used maps and atlases as tools since I began doing genealogy research.  What I found baffling at first – and still rather do – is how old atlases are simply discarded by most.  Once the information is out of date, the attitude often seems to be, what’s the use in keeping it?  Even most used books shops only sell atlases if they are antiquarian and rare books dealers that know there is demand for rare ones.

I used to go in to my local antique map dealer and thumb through the crates of original and reproduction maps.  One day I asked about a couple of them at different points during my browsing.  The person who was staffing the shop that day checked the second one and said, “Actually, that’s from the same atlas as the first – The Century Atlas of the World.”  He added that their maps seem to be more detailed than most of the ones published around that time period and showed me a few more digitized examples on the computer at the desk.  That was the point at which I realized that there was something special about that atlas.  It was also the point at which I realized what a market there is for individual maps in the rare dealers market.  I don’t remember the exact price any more, but buying those two loose maps would have cost at least $240.  Instead, I went home and searched until I found a dealer that had a copy of the entire atlas for sale.  That cost me $400, but netted me an entire 1897 atlas full of extremely detailed maps.  The market in individual maps presumes that people are only interested in whatever exact area the map displays – that no one is generally interested in historical depictions of the country or the world.  Perhaps it is the preservationist in me, but I like to think of my interest in old atlases as helping to save them as whole artifacts, in addition to benefiting both my research and my general curiosity about the world.

Since that time, I have learned to check one of the antiquarian book shops in my area, which often has atlases for sale both in their clearance section and their main book shop.  I have looked through them and decided which ones had something different enough about them that made them worth adding to my collection. While these are “common” atlases that rare book dealers wouldn’t touch, they are quite useful; two specific examples are one that has very detailed maps of many of the world’s major cities and another with a gazetteer section that has lithographs so finely drawn that when I first picked it up in the shop, I mistakenly thought they were early photos.

But I have also continued contact with the book shop that sold and mailed me The Century Atlas of the World.  That is how I found two atlases that are different than the others, and which I consult a fair amount in my research.  I purchased the most recent one this summer, Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States, which was published circa 1883 and principally – though not only – uses the 1880 federal population census for data.  It joins a very similar one already in my collection, Statistical Atlas of the United States: Based upon the Results of the Eleventh Census, published circa 1898, around the same time as The Century Atlas of the World.  Any fellow researching-the-US genealogists reading this may have gotten to the phrase “results of the eleventh census” and keeled over from the trauma, aware that this is the 1890 federal population census, the one that was almost completely destroyed by a fire.  That was one of my motivations in adding that atlas to my collection, and I often wish it weren’t such a physically large atlas so that I could take it along with me to show to other researchers.

The Scribner’s atlas, while not as large in size, is a much heftier volume, somewhat difficult even to lift.  It is incredibly detailed in its information, and I find it absolutely fascinating to thumb through, just as I found those World Books as a child.  Despite the title, it includes a lot of tables, graphs, and figures as well as maps.  It has a detailed breakdown, by election, of how many people in each state voted for the presidential winner that year, along with a sidebar showing the others that ran.  (An example page is here; several other pages on the subject are also at that site.)  It has a series of graphs of the most populous cities in the country in each census, which I spent ages surveying.  I found it fascinating that in 1880, the state where I live, Massachusetts, had 5 of the 40 top cities in the country – Boston, Lowell, Worcester, Cambridge, and Fall River.  If that doesn’t illustrate the rise and fall of industrial towns, I am not sure what would.  The Library of Congress’s American Memory project has scanned selected pages from both atlases, some of which I have linked above; you can download larger versions of the pages, which is probably easier than using their zoom and pan feature if you are very interested in the topics.  They also have an essay on their site that includes a discussion of the rise of more detailed atlases in late 19th and early 20th century America – National Atlases: Presenting the Nation’s Cultural Geography.

I recently had the great pleasure of taking the first-ever session of Boston University’s newest genealogical course, Writing Family History Narratives and Other Genealogical Works, taught by John Colletta and Thomas Jones.  For my essay for the course, I chose an event that had happened in and around Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio.  To illustrate it, I scanned the below map from The Century Atlas of the World (this map is an inset in the Ohio map) and printed it to include with my essay.  While this wasn’t the subject of my essay, looking at a map like this very clearly shows why so many American-born Cincinnatians were from Kentucky, and why many in Cincinnati were initially ambiguous at best about slavery, despite Ohio being a free state.

Map of Cincinnati and environs from The Century Atlas of the World

Map of Cincinnati and environs from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: The Century Atlas of the World, Vol. X (1897). Click on the image to view the full-sized map.

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