- Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience
In August 1776, just a month after the Declaration of Independence had been signed in the Pennsylvania State House, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife. The Adamses regularly corresponded about subjects large and small, from the implications of independence to the scarcity of coffee and sugar. But Adams wrote this particular letter after touring the newly formed Board of War, and in it he mused about the importance of cartography. “Geography is a Branch of Knowledge, not only very usefull,” he declared, “but absolutely necessary, to every Person of public Character whether in civil or military Life. Nay it is equally necessary for Merchants.” He went on to describe the war board’s effort to compile a collection of maps of North America to be displayed as soon as it was complete, and promised to “send you a List of it.” While military leaders most likely focused on the strategic importance of topography, Adams waxed more philosophical. On this eve of war he asserted that “America is our Country and therefore a minute Knowledge of its Geography, is most important to Us and our Children.”
“Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience” makes Adams’s recommendation a reality. Curated by Martin Brückner, professor of English and material culture studies at the University of Delaware, the exhibition uses six interrelated themes to explore the social and cultural meaning of early American cartography alongside maps’ more practical purposes of locating users both geographically and spatially. It is an ambitious agenda, covering more than two centuries and everything from gender norms to war, industrialization, and commercialization. Most objects are drawn from Winterthur’s extensive collection of maps as well as map-related objects [End Page 617]such as paintings, globes, fans, powder horns, printed handkerchiefs, and playing cards. A few key pieces, however, are on loan from other private and public repositories and offer a rare opportunity to consider the broad panoply of goods that provided early Americans with a sense of place.
Maps were nearly omnipresent in the eighteenth century, pinned as usable decor to the walls of neighborhood taverns and coffee houses and hung in gilt frames in the parlors of the well-to-do. The first section of the exhibition, “Sociable Maps: Parlors and Pubs,” demonstrates the variety of practical purposes maps served in businesses that themselves were often nodes of transportation and information. Some businesses doubled as stagecoach and ferry stations, and others served as de facto post offices before the establishment of a national mail service. Thus John Reed’s 1774 map of “The City and Liberties of Philadelphia” did more than lay out the town’s streets and neighborhoods. Printed on six sheets, it included an alphabetical listing of the city’s merchants, tax collectors, and real estate agents by neighborhood, as well as sketches of its most striking buildings, including the Pennsylvania Hospital, the State House, and the Alms House. In sum, the map serves as textual and visual testimony of Philadelphia’s prominent place among North America’s bustling seaport cities on the eve of the American Revolution.
The exhibition’s next two sections, “Indoors and Outdoors: Men and their Maps” and “Upstairs, Downstairs: Maps in a Woman’s World,” together offer one of the most engaging and innovative aspects of the show. At first glance, Brückner’s analysis of land survey plat maps as tools for assessing property and attaching a value for purchase, rent, or taxes may seem conventional. Isaac Stevenson’s 1803 land survey for New Castle County, Delaware, for example, is a simple line drawing. Land available for sale appears clearly marked as either “wood land” or “clear land” so that prospective purchasers would know the status of their potential investment. But Stevenson also included several features likely to put prospective buyers at ease; a notation about the public road “leading from Wilmington towards Doe Run” ran along the left-hand side of the property, while he depicted three rivers crisscrossing the property from...