- The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750–1860 by Martin Brückner
Maps, Cartography, United States, Mapmakers, Information
The Social Life of Maps in America is a very social book. It is outgoing and connected in tone, focus, and scope, which emphasizes the nature and role of maps in multiple dimensions of American civic and personal life. Riffing on Arjun Appadurai’s, The Social Life of Things (Cambridge, UK, 1986), Brückner emphasizes the need to understand the meanings of maps not only from “within the content” but also “from the outside” (10). Much like the texts discussed, Social Life of Maps links disciplines, formats, and data in ways that Google, GPS, and Twitter location services would envy, resulting in a book relevant to social as well as physical topography, past and present.
Immaculately curated and organized, Social Life of Maps is divided into three sections structured around chronological and thematic markers. The first unit introduces a series of carto-biographies of mapmakers in the 1750s (Lewis Evans), the turn of the nineteenth century (Samuel Lewis, Mathew Carey, John Melish), and the antebellum period (Henry Schenck Tanner, S. August Mitchell), as production shifted from an artisan to manufactured model. As a vital component of the “American communication circuit,” maps were made, sold, or read not solely as scientific or accurate depictions of imperial and nationalist spaces but also as interactive media intertwined with art, technology, consumption, and property (23).
In the second and third units, Brückner weaves a splendidly innovative narrative by focusing on frequently overlooked “cartofacts,” or multiple forms of carto-visualizations. Moving away from chronology, these sections instead examine elaborate and everyday maps, respectively, of the early national and antebellum periods. The second unit studies maps that were designed for exhibition—often large and expansive, and usually intended for public and private display. These “spectacular” maps, as Brückner labels them, were designed to promote prestige as well as literacy, relying heavily on elaborate dimensions, from intricate cartouches to other noncartographic elements. In contrast, the “unspectacular” maps discussed in section three were small maps and atlases built for portability and education. These were more ephemeral and instructional modes [End Page 332] of “mappery”—another term that Brückner deftly deploys to demonstrate how maps seeped into personal and collective consciousness.
Social Life of Maps is a beautifully designed book, a map of maps. Brückner brings these images and objects to life, and the story envelopes the reader in the sensory milieu of what it would feel like to experience maps in their particular historical contexts. He extends this commentary in a recent episode of the podcast “Ben Franklin’s World,” when he elaborates on the nuances of papermaking and the functions of maps. Brückner uses this approach to materiality to inform not only his analysis but also his book design. Both support Brückner’s insistence on the centrality of maps to material text and early American studies, particularly through cartofacts and maps’ paratextual, or noncartographic, elements. As Brückner observes, “book historians have an uneasy relationship with maps,” and while they are often present in the study of colonial and early national America, maps appear more as an archival object rather than a focus (244). Drawing on studies in cartography from J. B. Hartey to Mary Spongberg Pedley, Brückner bridges the type of research published by cartography journals like Imago Mundi with studies of print culture and material texts. He does not dismiss or neglect the map/political power dynamic but rather is interested in a commercial and cultural experience. Brückner’s work forms a necessary complement to recent studies like Max Edelson’s The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Cambridge, MA, 2017), which examines the implication of mapmaking in the construction of the state, infrastructure, and Indigenous politics.
Brückner’s study offers an extended meditation on a central question: What are maps...