Tag Archives: history

Vintage American infographics | Susan Schulten

Mapping the Nation by Susan Schulten

I reviewed Susan Schulten’s new book, Mapping the Nation: History and cartography in 19th Century America, for publicbooks.org but there were so many images (90%) that did not make it into that review I decided to write a post here, too. This blog tends to focus on contemporary graphics, but information graphics are not new and the historical context of infographic forms is fascinating, especially in light of research that examines the status of information graphics as the output of inscription devices (Latour and Woolgar, 1979). How did we end up with the selection of graphic forms we now have? In what way were these images originally used and by whom?

The images in Schulten’s book – and on her superb companion website – are mostly maps, but there are also a surprising number of information graphics. As Schulten writes, maps and mapping were both made possible because America became a country (and thus had a government that could be petitioned to support the expense of creating maps and provide a centralized repository in which maps could be collectively held and made available) and they made America an imaginable possibility. In short, the establishment of American government made mapping possible and the existence of national maps made America an imaginable possibility. Without being able to see not only the colonies, but also the rest of the North American continent, it would have been far more difficult to imagine and pursue westward expansion, for instance. The first chapters of the book provide a nice companion to Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” that focused on the role of newspapers and novels in creating a national imagination. Schulten is also interested in printed matter, but for her the big deal is mapping.

Maps as propaganda

If mapping in the immediate post-colonial and early frontier eras was exciting – and it was – it got even more exciting during the contentious lead-up to the Civil War. One of the maps I’m including here is propaganda for the abolition of slavery. I have included the whole map as well as a close-up, but I encourage you to click through to Schulten’s companion website where you will find high quality scans of all the maps that will give you far more detail than I am able to show here.

Antebellum Historical Geography Map of US

Antebellum Historical Geography Map of US | by John Smith

Close-up of antebellum historical geography map | John Smith

Close-up of antebellum historical geography map | John Smith

Propaganda is typically not something maps are used for now, at least not in the blatant fashion of the pre-Civil War years, but it is true that maps are depictions of political boundaries and, as such, are ripe for the delivery of political messages. [For a more recent example of US maps used in politically charged ways see modern artist Jasper Johns.]

What I found more intriguing were the maps that displayed their political messages almost invisibly using choropleth techniques. The choropleth technique is still extremely common today and relies on shading assigned to political divisions like state or county lines. Census tract boundaries can also be used. It’s debatable whether or not census tracts are political boundaries but they certainly are not boundaries based on natural features like streams or mountain ranges. Some of the first choropleths were developed to show more precise locations and densities of slave labor in an effort to discredit Southern claims that slavery covered the South like a blanket without which Southern economies would freeze.

Slavery map of US, 1861

Slavery map of US, 1861 | Edwin Hergsheimer

Slavery map of US, 1861 [closeup]

Slavery map of US, 1861 [closeup] | Edwin Hergsheimer

Another attempt at a similar political message – to display variation in slave holdings in order to prove that other economic models were viable and operant in the South during the 1850s – failed as a map but introduced an interesting graphical form. This Missouri map shows county boundaries within each of which there is a small graphic with the overall intent of providing:

A view of the numerical relation of slaves to agricultural wealth in Missouri, Showing in each county the number of slaves to every ten thousand dollars worth of farms and farming implements according to the US Census of 1850.

To interpret the map, then, keep in mind that counties with more dots rely more heavily on slave labor rather than mechanical labor. Of course, counties with few dots could either be utilizing human labor more efficiently, and thus have lower slave-to-machine ratios, or they could have had very little agricultural practice of any kind, slave or free. Because the graphic elements represent such an obscure, unfamiliar measure (slaves-to-machines), the map ought not to be considered a great success. But it is an excellent example of maps depicting thematic data without resorting to choropleths. We could use more of this boundary pushing map-graphic hybridity now

Missouri Slave Density map, 1850 | Edwin Leigh

Missouri Slave Density map, 1850 | Edwin Leigh

Disease mapping in America

With some chagrin, I admit Schulten’s book corrected an inaccurate belief of mine with respect to the use of maps in the detection of disease. I had erroneously thought that John Snow was the first person to use maps as a tool to detect the cause of disease when he pinpointed the cause of London’s cholera epidemic to a public water pump. He was not the first to use maps to discover disease. Americans in Baltimore, Boston, and New Orleans were mapping all sorts of potential causes of diseases like cholera including weather patterns, train routes, proximity to open water, and the eventual culprit, proximity to public water. Snow was the first to hone in on the cause, but he was not the first to use maps. Further, he was likely aware of American public health mapping efforts.

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 | Henry Williams

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 | Henry Williams

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 [closeup] | Henry Williams

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 [closeup] | Henry Williams

Bonus image

I am including one more image – not a map – to show just how fresh 19th century graphics were. This is a graphic that uses states as categories but breaks them out of the map form in order to present them as squares. It is easier to divide squares into percentages, which is just what Francis A. Walker did to show the types of church denominations present from one state to the next. It is easy to see why he avoided using a map – it would be difficult to divide the irregular shapes of states into precise percentages. Further, even if he could divide the irregular areas properly, if he then filled the areas with particular denominations, it would have appeared that the denominations were geographically tied to particular places within the states. His choice of squares as representations of the states is logical. From this graphic solution to his problem we end up with a visual technique for representing all sorts of information that is bound to related categories.

Church denominations in the US by state

Church denominations in the US by state | Francis A. Walker via Susan Schulten

References

Latour and Woolgar. (1979) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Schulten, Susan. (2012) Mapping the Nation: History and cartography in 19th Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [see also Mapping the Nation website]

Norén, Laura. (2013) Mapping a young America Review of Susan Schulten’s “Mapping the Nation: History and cartography in 19th Century America. PublicBooks.org

London Underground – Historical Ads

What works

The London Underground has a lengthy history of using infographic thinking in their advertisements (see these ads and more on retronaut.co). What works here is that some of these ads, especially the first one, could still be used with positive impact today if the silhouettes were updated to include the transit types actually on the street out there. If I saw an infographic that compared the speed of walking (with and without a stroller), taking the subway, taking a cab, and biking to incite me to take the subway or bike, I would find that compelling. I’d imagine many New Yorkers would agree with me. Probably so would Londoners. It is remarkable how long lasting this ad is.

What needs work

The ad needs to have a better implementation of the scale associations in the miles per hour that would help communicate the idea that the underground is faster than all the other modes of mobility. If someone were to make this infographic today, they would probably make the slower forms of mobility look shorter (almost like applying a bar graph where the slower mobility forms haven’t made it as far across the page). They probably would also scale the size of the number representing kilometers per hour. Maybe they would become more and more italicized, leaning farther and farther to the right to indicate speed. Maybe they just would have gotten bigger as they approached the fastest speed.

Moving on in time, I think the next ads for the London Underground are actually not as strong as this first one, at least until we get to 1969. We see below a graphic that is supposed to help Londoners understand what their Underground fares are actually funding, but there is no scale comparison available from one ‘bar’ in the bar graph to the next. What’s more, the numbers associated with the bars are represented by the coinage. The viewer has to do the math by himself or herself. Personally, I find that to be a kind of naive approach to representing the fare distribution, one that has the viewer doing mental work to add up coinage, which is kind of incidental to the question, rather than comparing one category of expenditures to the others, which is the heart of the question that was posed.

The Individual Group, Pop Art, and London Underground ad improvements

This ad is much better, more compelling, it still carries the idea of infographic representation from the fare split into coinage by representing people not as dots but by keeping them as actual people (or passenger cars). The photo of a street full of cars that stretch so far we can’t see the end of it steps to a photo of just the human bodies carried by those cars and finally all those humans on a single bus. This particular instantiation of that idea is much stronger. In my opinion, I imagine the advertisers here having been influenced by the artistic work of the UK’s Individual Group who were the British version of American Pop Artists.

London Underground Ad 1969

London Underground Ad 1969

Artistic comparison

Just for fun, compare the ad above with some work by American Feminist Artist Barbara Kruger (for you non-art history people, feminist art followed pop art and used a lot of performance work but also maintained some of the pop art movement’s interest in the tropes of advertising, collage techniques, and the use of text in art. See also later conceptual artist Jenny Holzer.)

Barbara Kruger "Your gaze hits the side of my face" 1982

Barbara Kruger "Your gaze hits the side of my face" 1982

Barbara Kruger "Your Manias Become Science" 1981

Barbara Kruger "Your Manias Become Science" 1981

Barbara Kruger "Untitled" 1981

Barbara Kruger "Untitled" 1981

References

Retronaut.co (4 January 2012) London Transport Infographics, 1912-1969 [blog post].

Kruger, Barbara. (1981) Untitled. [collage] Accessed online at http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/feminism/kruger/kruger.htm

Kruger, Barbara. (1981) Untitled. [collage] Accessed online at http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/feminism/kruger/kruger.htm

Kruger, Barbara. (1982) “Your gaze hits the side of my face” [collage] Accessed online at New York University’s Fales Collection at Bobst Library http://www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/fales/exhibits/downtown/soho/sohoart/documents/kruger.html.