Antique Maps

Who can resist the charm of decorative antique maps? Steeped in history and imbued with romance, they are illuminating windows into the world that was.

The earliest printed maps date from the 15th Century, and the first to show America was made in 1507 by the Dutch cartographer Johannes Ruysch, who, most authorities believe, had sailed to the New World with John Cabot in 1497.

In 1540 Sebastian Munster published the first separate map of the Americas, showing the continental landmass and the present west coast of the United States with a large off-shore island called Zipangri.

Thirty years later Abraham Ortelius published a highly decorative general map of the Americas that became the best general depiction of the New World in the latter part of the 16th Century.

Scarce first edition of Homann's highly decorative double-hemisphere map of the World, showing California as an island and richly embellished with Celestial models of the northern and southern hemispheres.

Ruysch, Munster, Ortelius and other early map-makers endeavored to make their work as accurate as possible, but they had to rely not only on crude and inadequate equipment but also on incomplete or even erroneous information from the field. Their maps are highly prized by collectors for their elaborate decoration, their historical

significance and, not the least, for the “mistakes” in their representations of our world.

As a traveler in today’s world, we may seek out the most accurate and up-to-the-minute map we can find, but as collectors we are intrigued by these antique maps that show California as an island, Greenland divided into two parts, gold mines in the Appalachians, and other geographical curiosities and misconceptions. We are fascinated not only by a glimpse into what was but also a chance to see what wasn’t.

Because many of these early antique maps are so scarce, and consequently very expensive, most of us will have to enjoy them through pictures in books or visits to museums. Among the many books that you might turn to are The Mapping of North America: Three centuries of map-making 1500-1860, by John Goss; The Cartography of North America 100-1800, by Pierluigi Portinaro and Franco Knirsch; and Maps and Map-Makers, by R.V. Tooley.

Map-makers continued drawing maps of the Americas through the 17th and 18th Centuries, with sometimes interesting “inaccuracies,” and these maps, too, remain relatively expensive, although occasional titles turn up for under a hundred dollars. Two of my favorites are a French map of North America showing a vignette, or inset illustration, of Niagara Falls, New York, with palm trees in the foreground, and an early 19th Century English map of the Southeast U.S. showing the state of Franklin. Try to find that in today’s atlas.

William Faden's scarce 1796 map of the United States showing the State of Franklin, East and West Florida, and a vast Louisiana Territory that was still part of Spain.

During the 19th Century the industry of map-making evolved from wood block and copperplate engraving to the process of lithography, although printed color didn’t appear until late in the 1800s. For all the years up to that time, color on a map had been applied by hand.

Maps of the 19th Century can offer a collector on a modest budget a chance to own and appreciate some interesting examples of cartography. Some of the snootier “authorities” on the subject may look down their noses at this category – one book says bluntly that 19th Century lithographic maps “can hardly interest a serious collector of antique maps.” That’s hogwash as far as I am concerned.

Many of these lithographed maps of the 19th Century are highly attractive and interesting pieces of history – and they are affordable to the average collector. Demand will push up prices of maps for certain areas, so you can expect to pay more for a map of Texas, California or Florida, for example, than you would for a map of South America.

But if we take a look at one South America map, published in 1860 by Samuel Augustus Mitchell of Philadelphia, we’ll see an attractive hand-colored map, with a decorative border and a wealth of interesting historical information behind the geographical and political details. Present-day Colombia and Panama are New Grenada, southern Argentina is Patagonia, Ecuador is Equador, and Bolivia, now a landlocked republic, extends all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Samuel Augustus Mitchell Jr.'s 1860 map of South America.

This map, like many of similar vintage and style, is from an atlas. Mitchell was just one American atlas maker; others included Johnson, Colton, Gray, Bradley, and, in the later years of the 19th Century, Rand McNally and Cram. Prices for these atlases have been climbing sharply, with some of the earlier ones approaching $1000 apiece. The later Rand McNally and Cram atlases, which have printed versus hand colors, can occasionally be found for as little as $50 apiece, although there’s usually a premium for those that include early city maps of the U.S.

When is a map too new to be considered an antique? This is always a tough question because the word antique means “old fashioned” or “of a bygone style or period.” The speed at which our world is changing would seem to make even maps published less than 100 years ago “antiques.” We started the last century before the airplane was invented and we’ve already sent men to the moon. I’d be happy to hear from readers who may wish to share their idea of just what ought to constitute a collectible, antique map. And I welcome any questions or thoughts you may have on the fascinating world of maps.

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