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Charting the Art and History of Antique Maps

by Brian Meyer (09/21/11).

The 1824 map of the state of “Illinois” by Anthony Finley shows the early development in the south of the state.

People buy antique maps for many reasons. Some buy for the art or decorative value of the maps and others buy for the history, whether that history is personal, local, national or global. Some buy a few maps to frame, some buy for investment, to some build collections on very specific topics, or by a certain cartographer.

Until the late 1800s, most maps were printed using one of three major techniques: engraving, etching and lithography. These printing techniques yielded black and white images. Color, if desired, was added by hand, using watercolors. Maps printed in color replaced maps colored by hand during the 1880s. A few attempts at printed color appear earlier, and a few hand-colored maps lingered into the early 1890s. But the decade of the 1880s was one of major transition.

The earlier maps from the 16th to 18th centuries were frequently embellished with decorative features. The maps title and publishing information were frequently surrounded by ornamental scroll work, sometimes with pictures or portraits called a cartouche. Usually, the cartouche is found in a corner of the map, where detail is unknown or less important. Cherubs, ships, mythical sea monsters, native inhabitants or animals and historical scenes from the geographical area being represented can also be found. When these factors are combined with the limited scientific capabilities of the time, misinformation brought back by explorers—and the propagation of errors by plagiarism—many early maps are more works of art than science.

Starting in the latter half of the 1700s and continuing until the 1870s, the trend away from decorative flourishes to more utilitarian maps was much more gradual than the rapid change from hand-coloring to printed color that occurred in the 1880s.

Maps have historical significance on many levels as well. Some people buy antique maps as a tie to their personal history or heritage. (I began collecting maps of Maryland after moving to Chicago around 1970 as an emotional tie to “home”). Because of the number of professionals being transferred around the country, I have sold maps to many people for the same reason. Some others buy maps of a favorite vacation spot or the area of their summer homes.

Others collect maps because of an interest in local or national history. A collection of maps of Illinois from statehood in 1818 to the turn of the 20th century shows the growth and development of the state. Many people are surprised to learn that most of the development in early Illinois was down state. This is because most of the settlers arrived by river, either the Ohio or the Mississippi. This is graphically represented by the development of counties from south to north, in the map pictured, published by Anthony Finley in 1824.

The western section of the “Map of the United States” from the McNally’s System of Geography, 1856.

Some antique maps have great historical significance. Some represent great discoveries for the first time, or changes in boundaries or political status. After I bought my first map of Maryland, I started looking in antique shops and antiquarian bookshops for more maps and atlases while traveling on business (I have been a corporate dropout for 20 years now). On one trip to Minneapolis I found seven school atlases from the 1830s to the 1870s. What fascinated me was that every map of the United States west of the Mississippi showed different states, territories and boundaries.

You wouldn’t believe it, but Chicago hasn’t always appeared to be in Illinois. Some maps I have seen put the Windy City in Indiana, others in what is now Wisconsin. These were not mistakes; they simply show the changes in proposed state boundaries to accommodate lake access for all three states.

The development of territories and states west of the Mississippi is a fascinating study, which has generated very high demand for maps of the west from 1800 to about 1880. Notice the differences in the two maps of the U.S. West, published only three years apart. Political changes in Europe over the centuries have provided a wealth of collecting possibilities.

There is a wide range of collecting possibilities with antique maps, as they are available from the 1500s to today, from miniatures to wall size, from less than $50 to many thousands of dollars. Many maps from the 1800s can be purchased for less than $100.

Most antique maps that are available today have been removed from atlases and other books. The obvious reason is that books, with their protective cover or boards, are much more durable than an individual sheet of paper.

The western section of “Colton’s Map of the United States of America,” published by Johnson and Browning, circa 1859 or 1860. Note how Arizona and New Mexico have been divided on a North/South axis rather than East/West.

Many atlases have been disbound over the years to sell the maps individually. In many cases, this was done because the atlas had sustained some damage, despite the protective binding, that has made it undesirable as a collectible atlas or book. In some cases, maps have already been removed by previous owners, the book might have serious water damage or staining to a significant portion, or pages may have been partially eaten by insects or rodents. There are a variety of conditions that can make an atlas unmarketable.

Many common atlases, and some not so common, have been broken up simply because the total value of the individual maps exceeded the value of the atlas as a complete book. Sometimes dealers, and especially eBay sellers, fail to take into consideration that only a few of the maps will sell quickly and they may not live long enough to sell all of them, or even enough to exceed the value of the complete atlas. I no longer break up atlases that do not have significant flaws, even though I have in the past. It is partly because I hate seeing a perfectly good book or atlas dismembered, but also for more practical reasons; having taken apart six or seven nearly identical atlases over the years, I am now stuck with multiple copies of the least desirable maps.

It is my hope that seeing several options for collecting maps will help you select an area of collecting and focus your collection. A group of one hundred maps not connected in any way may be easier to assemble, but the result is an accumulation, not a collection. This is not necessarily meant as a criticism. Accumulation is probably an apt description of my maps and atlases. Possibly, I have an accumulation of small collections. However I describe them, I have bought antique maps that appeal to me and fit into my varied interests. As I plan to write several more articles in the coming months, come along with me as I travel along different routes to consider the different areas of map collecting.

Brian Meyer has been collecting, buying, selling and valuing antiques since the late 1970s. Born in Baltimore, he moved to Chicago in the late 1960s. He is an antique dealer, estate sale conductor, speaker and owner/operator of Chicago Antiques Guide. He appears at several appraisal events in the Chicagoland area each year.

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