David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Cartography: Maps Predicting–or Pushing–“Conquest”

In previous weeks, we’ve read about maps helping to legitimate conquest of what they depict as blank space, of “terra nullius.” While all of this week’s readings have fascinating things to say, I found James R. Akerman’s “Twentieth-Century American Road Maps and the Making of a National Motorized Space” most fascinating, as it reminded me of that broader theme. In his fascinating chapter on the evolution of road maps, he puts forth the notion that laying out a road on a map–particularly a paved, improved road–would help make it a reality. For example, on page 176, Akerman says:

Association highway promotional maps thus served the dual purpose of attracting or routing early motorists through specific corridors, thereby creating both short-term income for local interests and long-term justification for the construction of regional and interstate highways, specifically along routes designated by the associations. To build and sustain momentum for these efforts, the maps had subtly to persuade potential tourists that the primary goal-a continuous improved motorway-had already been achieved.

There is something to this argument. When a map shows something under construction, planned–as with the case of Metro’s Silver Line–or, even more so, already there even if it isn’t, that something has an air of inevitability. As Akerman shows, road maps helped lay the groundwork–pun not intended–for people in the United States to imagine a national road network, to make the idea of traveling long distances, even coast to coast, by auto more imaginable. This is similar to earlier maps that Bruckner, among others, point out as showing the inevitability of conquest of “blank” spaces or spaces already depicted inside U.S. borders.

In the case that Akerman describes, maps helped automobiles conquer the North American landscape, for better or worse. Showing fully improved roads where there were none helped create the demand to improve those roads. Circular logic, perhaps, but effective.

Addendum: This week I commented on Kenna’s blog.

1 Comment

  1. What I really enjoyed was the point–seemingly obvious once you think about it, but I’d never thought about it–how as roads improved and automobiles became more reliable, road maps increasingly ignored topography altogether. A real shift from bicycle maps, given that topography was of prime importance to cyclists.

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