“What did you get for Christmas?” This question usually makes me uncomfortable. Like I’m an accomplice to the Great American Capitalist System. Like we’re all just measuring days, weeks, months, years — and even holidays — by the amount of units sold, inventory moved, profits made. That’s not how I want to live my life. Especially when it comes to Christmas! Still, I do recognize that the exchange of gifts is a traditional part of American Christmas celebrations… And I admit that I regularly take part in this tradition. And this particular year, I’m so excited about some of the gifts that I gave and received this year that I want to write about it. So, go ahead. Ask me what I got for Christmas. And let me tell you about some old maps that were gifted to me by my mother-in-law.
National Geographic “Close-Up USA” Maps (1978)
The first set of old maps that I opened on “Christmas Morning” (December 27th, this year) were not a huge surprise (though still an absolute delight). I’d seen this vintage set of National Geographic “Close-Up USA” maps from 1978 in Marci’s family’s farmhouse earlier in the year. They’d been sitting, unused, on the shelves in their kitchen for decades. But I geeked out pretty hard when I saw them. I got so enthusiastic, in fact, that it triggered some sort of defensive mechanism in my father-in-law. His Alzheimer’s Disease can cause him to act strangely. So I wasn’t surprised or hurt when he grabbed the map set, cradled them to his chest like a little girl holding her baby doll, and walked to a different part of the house to get those maps away from me.
We had a good laugh about it at the time. But when my mother-in-law asked if I had any Christmas gift suggestions, I mentioned a few different possibilities for things she could buy… and I also suggested that those old maps could be a welcome gift. If Ross had forgotten about them.
So I had a pretty good idea of what was happening when Marci handed me the gift-wrapped package with a tag that said “From Louise, to Eric — Make sure to open when Ross is not around!” Still, it was so fun to open that present and start looking at those maps. I’m kind of crazy about cartography, and I feel like National Geographic makes some of the best maps around. The way they use colors, lines, and text just makes sense to me. The level of detail on these maps is fantastic. They use some kind of coating to make their fold-out maps waterproof and tear-resistant.
And I love the way that old maps like these capture a moment in time.
Even though the geographic terrain hasn’t changed much, our definition of it has. For instance, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park doesn’t make an appearance on these maps. But that’s because it wasn’t recognized as a National Recreation Area until 1974, and it didn’t become a National Park until 2000. The cities of central Ohio look small on these maps, compared to northeast Ohio. But that’s because much of the population shifts have only happened in the last 40 years. So I love these maps both as a contemporary reference and as a historical reference.
Geographical Publishing Company Maps (1911)
The second set of old maps were a complete surprise. I got these on “Christmas Afternoon” (December 31st, this year) at the Farmhouse. From the size and shape of the package, I thought they might be a rolled-up poster. But when I removed the wrapping paper, I found an antique set of maps intended for hanging on the wall. They were published by the Geographical Publishing Company of Chicago — get this — in 1911! My mother-in-law told me that they’d been sitting in the attic of the farmhouse for quite awhile. Maybe even 100 years. But when she saw them again recently and remembered how much I’d admired the other old maps, she decided to give them to me. I was flabbergasted. And honored, delighted, curious, anxious… all of that. It was such a unique gift!
The maps have a yellowed-but-shiny patina to them that makes them difficult to photograph. And they’ve been rolled up for so long that I need to put books on the corners when I want to look at them. But I hope to eventually frame them and hang them on the walls of our home. They are so beautiful, so different, and so interesting that they just beg to be seen and discussed.
Roughly 35″ x 27″, it seems like these maps were distributed by the First National Bank of Shelby, Ohio (proudly announcing themselves as the “Oldest Bank in the County”). I don’t know if they were given or sold to its customers (presumably including some of Marci’s ancestors) because the maps claim to provide “all and more than is usually contained on a $15.00 globe” (which would be about $439 in today’s economy). But regardless the back story, I think they’re amazing!
The first page of the set features a map of Ohio (without interstate highways and with alternate spellings to some of the locations). The map of Ohio is ringed by the seals of all the U.S. states and territories (including the territories of Alaska and “Porto Rico”). The back of the first page features a “1910 Census Gazetteer of Ohio” listing the area and population of every city in the state, ringed by portraits of every governor from Ohio up to that point. It also includes a “Wages Table, at Different Rates per Month, for 26 Working Days” (with the upper end of the income bracket pulling in $60 per month) and a listing of “Population of the Earth by Races.”
The second page of the set features a map of the United States and its territories. Portraits of every president up to that point surround the map of the 48 states. And the maps of the U.S. territories and “possessions” includes some curiosities including the colonial history of North America, “The Relative Sizes of the United States and the European Powers,” and the unique signals of the relationship between the USA and the Philippines at the time. The back of the second page features various tables related to “Official Figures of the Last Three Census Periods Showing Growth of Nation and States.” I thought it was particularly interesting to note that Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the United States at that point in history.
The third page of the set might be the most interesting, though. It includes an unusual “Van Der Grinten’s Spherical Projection” of the earth’s surface. The map includes an astonishing amount of information. And I thought the map’s description of itself was highly entertaining:
This world map is the result of a new idea and the first original projection of the world produced during the last one hundred years. It is well to understand thoroughly that its discoverer is a mathematical geographer of the first class. It is not a novelty, nor a freak map, but possesses advantages over every other style of world map issued. Generally speaking, no one will be satisfied with the other styles if they understand the advantages possessed by this improved projection. One feature alone places it far above all other world maps, viz. : the showing of the poles. As a matter of fact, the Mercator map is not a world map, simply a portion of the world, and the Mollweide map is so compressed that it is impossible to do any mapping in the polar regions.
The land and water bodies, their sizes and shapes, and relative distances between them, are shown more accurately and more distinctly on this than on any other World or Hemisphere maps. A comparison with a Mercator, a Molleweide or other projections will quickly prove this fact.
Whereas every map of the world on a flat sheet must naturally show distortion of shapes, they average much smaller in this than in other maps and the amount of mapping surface is more favorable. So much for the projection. A glance at the map itself will prove the care that has been taken to crowd this new engraving with valuable and instructive data. As a reference map in the home and office, it will be unsurpassed. No map of the world of its size has ever attempted one-half as much; in fact, it shows all and more than is usually contained on a $15.00 globe.
More than these curiosities, though, I’m fascinated by the geo-political elements of this third map. Many of the flags around the outside of the map are different from today’s flags. The portraits of world leaders underneath the map show even greater differences. And the map itself shows radically different political boundaries in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The Turkish Empire was still intact at the time this map was published! Russia was ruled by a Tsar. And Central Europe shows a bunch of weird tensions between empires and monarchies. All of which points to the “Great War” coming just a few years after the publication of this map.
The back of the third page is all about the Panama Canal. Clearly, it was a much bigger deal for Americans then, compared to now. But I find that interesting, too. Everything was ships and locomotives in 1911. No airplanes. Very little automotive transport (definitely no interstate highway infrastructure). It was a different world, 121 years ago. But also, strangely, the same world. Where people in Shelby did their banking at First National… Where people were proud of their region… And where people tucked away old maps in their bookshelves and attics to be discovered and appreciated by successive generations.