Back in 1932, a naval historian named Charles O. Paullin and a geographer named John K. Wright published a colossus of cartography called Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. However, despite the 700 maps contained in the volume’s mass that detailed changes over time in the United States — from the growth of transportation to the vanishing of virgin forest — they weren’t entirely pleased. They wanted the maps to be animated, to move to show these alterations.
The technology, however, wasn’t available at the time. But now it is. The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond released a digital version of Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States on December 22. As the New York Times cited in their coverage of the launch, Wright had stated in the introduction to the Atlas that “the ideal historical atlas might well be a collection of motion-picture maps [...] if these could be displayed on the pages of a book without the paraphernalia of projector, reel and screen.” Now that vision has been realized as the Digital Scholarship Lab compiled these maps into timeline-driven stories of how the West was “won” by expansion, how gradually women secured the right to vote, where crops like cotton were grown, how different religions expanded through new churches, and even details like the increase of the number of tractors on farms between 1920 and 1925.
Sure, some of this might seem like dated minutiae now (for example, the decrease in horses and mules two years old and over between 1920 and 1925), but together it is a fascinating portrait of how the distribution of wealth people, industry, and culture in the United States developed into the country we know today. The Digital Scholarship Lab pitches it as ”a spectacular historical atlas refashioned for the 21st century,” and even if the data is eight decades old, it’s hard not to feel the resonance of the visible increasing concentrations of wealth or the 19th century relocation of American Indians to reservations alongside the brutal battles of resistance. Even if it is just data charted on that familiar broad map with its peninsulas of points, there’s real human movement behind each statistic.
The Atlas follows the Digital Scholarship Lab’s previous mapping projects like Visualizing Emancipation — another digital cartography site that uses the accessibility and flexibility of the 21st century to better convey the stories of the previous centuries. In their coverage, the New York Times also noted that this was just the beginning of the Digital Scholarship Lab’s modern atlas, and with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation it’s going to continue to develop over the next ten years. A prospect that Paullin and Wright would surely have rejoiced at in their desire for a comprehensive and engaging look at American history through its geography.
View the whole Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States online at Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond.
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