David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Cartography: Creating Worlds with Maps

This week’s readings focused on the ways that maps, consciously or unconsciously, create worlds–whether a view of the outside world for individuals with little mobility, as Penny L. Richards discusses; a fantasy world, as Diane Dillon discusses with regard to the Columbian Exposition of 1893; or the world of past time, as Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton discuss in their history of the timeline. While all three readings provide fertile ground for exploration, I’m going to focus in this post on the article by Richards.

Richards’s article focuses on two women, Ellen Mordecai and Priscilla Bailey, in 19th-century North Carolina. Both women found themselves, like many women of their era, separated from family members and friends in an increasingly mobile society, and turned to maps as solace for that separation from familiar people and surroundings. (As a side note, I found the timing of reading this article ironic; Mordecai’s brother, Alfred, frequently comes up in tours and talks I give for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, where I end my employment Monday.) Richards uses Mordecai’s well-documented relationship with maps, something about which she wrote frequently, to then discuss Bailey’s more speculatively.

This reading complemented Bruckner’s discussion (last week’s reading) about geographic education forming an important part of women’s education in the early 19th century. I found this reading to be an interesting addition to that–not only did geographic education result in a heightened sense of nationalism, as Bruckner argues, but (probably inadvertently) helped to connect women, often without the same geographic mobility as men, to the world beyond their homes. Thus this article helps to bolster Bruckner’s argument by, indeed, showing the connection to the broader nation through maps; Mordecai sees herself as part of the larger collective, a nation beyond her individual experience, through her love of maps and tracing the travels of her brothers. As Richards acknowledged, the unfortunate part is that we don’t have Mordecai’s maps anymore, so we can’t be sure which she was using. Nonetheless, Richards’s readings of Mordecai’s writings show the impact maps had on her life. As Bruckner noted, many women of that era made needlework maps and learned cartography in school. As Richards noted, it would be useful to look into the reception and use of that geographic education by other women of the era. Were their maps laden with personal symbolism, as were Mordecai’s? What sorts of personal symbols did they include in their own mental maps?

Addendum: I commented on Sheri’s blog.

1 Comment

  1. “Thus this article helps to bolster Bruckner’s argument by, indeed, showing the connection to the broader nation through maps; Mordecai sees herself as part of the larger collective, a nation beyond her individual experience, through her love of maps and tracing the travels of her brothers.”

    You’re connection here to Bruckner is interesting. Bruckner seemed as well to be making an argument for American exceptionalism when it came to geographic imagination. Bruckner’s British American colonials used the notion of the American continent to draw distinctions between themselves and the people of Britain. Do you think Richards would argue something similar? Were the women she examines engaging in an especially “American” (apologies for the word) activity?

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