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Land Ho! Antique Maps

Used for Centuries to Navigate Routes Over Earth and Sea, Antique Maps Now Attract a host of Collectors--and a Few Thieves
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 3)

Ironically, while one mapmaker's mistake helped send Columbus on his way to the New World, it was another mapmaker's misguided beliefs that denied Columbus an honor that his discoveries merited.

Martin Waldseemüller, born in Germany around 1473, adopted the nom de plume of Ilacomylus, a Greek/Latin form of his name, when he became a cosmographer (an expert on the known universe) under the patronage of the Duke of Lorraine. The Duke was believed to have had a copy of a 1502 book, Mundus Novus ("The New World"), which detailed the voyages of the Florentine seafarer Amerigo Vespucci, who had followed in the wake of Columbus. Waldseemüller and his text writer, the poet Matthias Ringman, were so impressed with what Vespucci had done that in 1507 they published a new geographic book, Cosmographiae Introductio, which ignored the accomplishments of Columbus and instead labeled the new continent "America," in honor of Vespucci. Within a few years, Waldseemüller had second thoughts about whether Vespucci deserved the honor--but by then too many copies of Cosmographiae Introductio had been published and the name "America" had stuck.

"So geographers, in Afric maps/With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And over unhabitable downs/Place elephants for want of towns."
--Jonathan Swift, 1733

Generally speaking, an "antique" map is one that is more than 100 years old. The earliest printed European maps were produced in the fifteenth century from wooden blocks on which the image was carved out in relief. By the early sixteenth century, the preferred printing method became engravings on copper plates, in which the image was cut in reverse. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, steel--a far more durable metal--replaced copper. Finer lines could be etched on steel and more maps could be printed from plates made of it. Most engraved maps after 1830 were etched on steel. Mapmakers also began using lithography, or drawings done directly on specially prepared stones, in the early 1800s. Modern machine lithographic printing technology was developed by the late nineteenth century. Maps could be made even more quickly and cheaply, but much of the earlier decorative quality now prized by many collectors disappeared in the process.

The period from the mid-1500s to the 1700s is the one that most interests deep-pocketed collectors, with the 1600s often called mapmaking's "Golden Age," an era when Dutch and Flemish cartographers turned out especially exquisite examples of the mapmaker's art.

Late-nineteenth-century maps also now fall into the more-than-100-years-old "antique" category--and are expected to begin rising in value. There even are devotees of those old oil company road maps that were given away at gas stations and stuffed into glove compartments between the 1920s and 1970s. Road Map Collectors of America, established only a few years ago, now has more than 300 members.

What entices most collectors, however, are not maps that were mass-produced to guide our way across the U.S.A., but those that were engraved by hand to record the centuries-long advance of human knowledge about the planet on which we live, the oceans we sail, the celestial bodies that have guided seafarers and mapmakers alike, and the towns and cities we built.

Collectors accumulate a familiarity with more than just geography. They pick up history; they develop an eye for engraving skills, colors and condition; they learn the names of cartographers, engravers and printers. They particularly prize maps that feature the misconceptions, mistakes and wild imaginings of the past: California depicted as an island (a belief that persisted for more than 100 years); sea monsters spouting above the waves and strange beasts lumbering over uncharted terrain; bizarre races as weird as any imagined aliens--people born with their heads set into their chests or ears large enough to sleep in.

As historian Stephen E. Ambrose has noted, even as brilliant a polymath as Thomas Jefferson, who in his day owned the world's largest library on cartography, geography and the natural history "of that awesome terra incognita west of the Mississippi," was not immune to beliefs now deemed absurd. He thought that prehistoric creatures such as the giant ground sloth still lived along the upper Missouri River; that a mile-long mountain of pure salt existed on the Great Plains; that the Missouri, the Columbia, the Colorado and the Rio Grande rivers all emanated from a single source; and that there likely was an all-water route, linked by a low portage across the western mountains, that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In part it was to confirm or debunk these and other beliefs that Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark--two of this country's greatest early cartographers--on their epic expedition in 1803.

"We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this country. Those who come after us will fill up the canvas we begin," Jefferson wrote. Filling in that canvas took a long, long time. As late as 1867, a comprehensive summary of the geographical knowledge of the American West contains no reference to the Grand Canyon.

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