A recent item for sale in the rare-book trade caught my eye. Boston Rare Maps had a series of twelve maps created by America’s first female mapmaker, Emma Willard. They were to accompany a textbook she had written, first issued in 1828. The maps for sale were from the second edition.
Willard is well-known to historians of the early republic as a pioneering educator, the founder of what is now called the Emma Willard School, in Troy, New York. But she was also a versatile writer, publisher and, yes, mapmaker. She used every tool available to teach young readers (and especially young women) how to see history in creative new ways. If the available textbooks were tedious (and they were), she would write better ones. If they lacked illustrations, she would provide them. If maps would help, so be it: she would fill in that gap as well. She worked with engravers and printers to get it done. She was finding her way forward in a male-dominated world, with no map to guide her. So she made one herself.
The maps for sale show North America in twelve different snapshots. I say “snapshots” because Willard was such an inventive visual thinker. On the eve of photography, she was thinking hard about how to capture a big story inside a single striking image.
The first map shows “the location and wanderings of the aboriginal tribes,” using color swatches to show how the tribes moved great distances (including, in one instance, off the actual border of the map and into the margin).
Is this a veiled critique of the policies that had proved so damaging to Native Americans and were about to accelerate in the presidency of Andrew Jackson?
The other maps are highly visual as well. Willard shows ships sailing across the ocean and doesn’t hesitate to show slave traders among them.
Willard liked trees. In the upper-right of one of the maps, she uses a tree trunk to symbolize an early New England alliance of colonies:
In another textbook, she uses a large tree to show all of American history growing out of the earth:
Some of her other visual representations grow stranger and more surreal. Willard designed this “map of time” to convey to students the interdependence and totality of human history:
That map laid the groundwork for her various M. C. Escher-esque Temples of Time, which connect spacial and temporal history. They give readers a chance to walk into a room, moving through time and space as if entering a virtual reality:
Willard died in 1870 at the age of eighty-three. She was a lifelong advocate for women’s education, and she started earlier (and lasted longer) than most of the others. A key to her survival and success seems to have been her ability to imagine a better reality. Through these maps, one sees that imagination and lively intelligence at work.
An addendum: anyone seeking a more detailed explanation of Emma Willard’s achievement will find it in the work of the historian Susan Schulten or in this essay, available online, from the Journal of Historical Geography.
Ted Widmer interviewed R. Crumb for The Paris Review’s Summer 2010 issue. He is a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.