Like old magazine advertisements, ancient leather-bound books, or late-model cars, historical maps have an enchanting aesthetic quality. New maps might be more accurate and even more useful, but where’s the fun in that? These days, atlases and online maps look the same. Modern maps have similar ways of depicting landscapes: a small canon of layouts, a codified set of projections, and a standard range of fonts and map legends. In a way it’s nice that maps are more uniform because it makes them more accessible. But maps from different cultures and time periods such as Imperial Europe, the Medieval Islamic world, Ancient China, or Aztec Mesoamerica expose us to distinct ways of representing the world.
Below I’ve listed my five favorite online historical map collections, in no particular order. If you do already spend time looking at old maps, you probably haven’t heard of all of these collections. If you don’t spend time looking at old maps, I hope these sites will spark your interest. You’ll see how easy it is to get swept away by the exotic pictographic writing of Chinese or early Mesoamerican maps, or the hand-water colored coastlines of British Imperial maps. Many of the maps in the following collections have fascinating histories that aren’t explained in the sites themselves. Other websites such as the British Library and maphistory.info provide introductions to the history of cartography, as well as teacher resources, so visit them if you’d like a little background.
Excellent for armchair geographers and student researchers. Each map has a concise and informative historical background on the left side of the screen. Images are downloadable and printable for non-commercial use (check here for details). Highlights include works by Alexander Von Humboldt, and a collection of old globes.
Lose one of your inserts from National Geographic Magazine? Ever want to see a National Geographic map from before you had a subscription? You can find all of them here, organized by region and theme. My favorite is H.C. Berann’s 1968 Atlantic Ocean Floor, which has its own fascinating story. You can’t download these or print them for free, but you can zoom in to paw over the details of every map at high resolution.
Buried in this massive and slightly cluttered website lies the Benson Latin American Collection, home of the highest resolution images of rare Latin American Maps. The Relaciones Geográficas, a collection of maps made mostly by indigenous priests for a report to Spanish king in the 16th century, are a must-see. Maps such as Zumpango and Culhuacán show native mapping symbols (horseshoe, footprint, pictographs) mixed with European elements (perspective buildings, alphabetic writing).
A great resource for American maps. The Military Battles and Campaigns section is particularly rich, with colorful civil war maps from Gettysburg, WWII, and the Revolutionary War.
5. Google Earth Historical Imagery
With Google Earth 5 and later, you can view historical photos from the 1940s and onward. Also, some maps from the David Rumsey collection (see #1) have been added into Google Earth, so you can see them superimposed over the modern map.
Let us know about favorite historical maps sites posting in the comments!
-Cedar Attanasio for My Wonderful World