by Sam Balistreri-Daum
As I continued to catalog the British Admiralty charts this fall I was impressed by the way the AGS Library Nautical Chart collection in many ways shows the progress of exploration, especially in those last frontiers of the planet Earth, the Arctic and Antarctic Polar Regions. In today’s age of Google Maps and satellite imagery it becomes hard for us to imagine a time when every corner of the Earth was not known or explored. It still isn’t! Just think of the deepest parts of the oceans. So I decided I needed to learn more about what it was like in a time when polar exploration was at its most fervent if not urgent and theories, however crazy, were numerous as to what could be discovered at the poles.
John Blake, in The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts (2016) gives a concise summary of the attempts to explore and reasons for the exploration of both poles. Exploration of the northern Polar Regions has a longer history than that of the South Polar Region, which is due to the “discovery” of America and the obsession of European explorers to find a Northwest Passage to Asia and India. Although a Northwest Passage does technically exist (during certain seasons), it is not a viable and profitable trade route. Interestingly, much of the exploration of both Arctic and Antarctic regions was made possible by an increased availability of British Naval vessels in the period following the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the names of ships and personnel responsible for these voyages such as William Parry, Commodore John Ross, Captains George Lyon and Frederick Beechey and His Majesty’s Ships Victory, Investigator and Enterprise to name a few can be found on the British Admiralty charts in the AGS Library collection. The Antarctic region around the South Pole, though explored much later, inspired much anticipation and excitement among explorers and colonizers as many European nations had far-flung colonial empires. Many early world maps and atlases, including Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) depicted large continents at the poles, especially the massive “Terra Incognita Australis” in the South Polar Region. There was even speculation that this large southern continent would have a temperate climate and would be populated with indigenous plants, animals and people. Imagine that! Realistic attempts at coastal exploration of what is today Antarctica did not occur until the Mid-19th Century and was often a byproduct of whaling and seal hunting expeditions.
Remember how I said there were many theories about unexplored regions of Earth “however crazy”? Enter John Cleves Symmes (1780-1829), a military captain and veteran of the War of 1812. A timely listen to an episode of American history / comedy podcast The Dollop introduced me to Symmes and his theory. Symmes even spoke to the AGS in New York about his theory! Here at the AGSL we actually have a copy of The Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating That the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open about the Poles (1878) compiled by Symmes’ son Americus Symmes. They sure didn’t skimp on the title. The theory posits that the Earth is “globular, hollow, and open at the poles”, with a northern opening 2,000 miles in diameter and a southern opening that is “somewhat larger” (because why not, right?). The elder Symmes took his theory on the road, beginning in 1818 with an open letter calling for the exploration of the Arctic Polar Region to look for an opening, touring and lecturing until his death in 1829. Much like the speculation that a southern continent would have a temperate climate and be teeming with plant and animal life, the supposed hollow interior of the Earth according to Symmes would have a moderate climate and an abundance of flora and fauna. To Symmes and those convinced of his theory, the hollow Earth and its openings explained several phenomena including climate variation among various regions occupying the same latitude (for example temperate Europe vs. cold U.S. and Canada in winter), the Auroras (Borealis and Australis) and the counterintuitive migration patterns of various fish, bird and mammal species and groups of people. Want proof? Symmes claimed that looking at the example of Saturn’s Rings (discovered in 1610) proves that concentricity can exist. He also advanced the notion that not only Earth, but the rest of the planets in the solar system were probably hollow too. Including the sun! Needless to say Hollow Earth Theory doesn’t have much traction these days, except on the fringe where theories such as flat earth and the hollow moon (Aliens stole our moon and replaced it with a hollow one to spy on us?! Makes sense…) among others are alive and well.
The AGS Library is home not only to maps like the nautical charts that I have been working on cataloging during my time here, but a multitude of books, atlases and print materials that can be just as surprising as discovering the Earth is hollow.
Blake, John. The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts. Conway/Bloomsbury, 2016.
Symmes, John Cleves. The Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open about the Poles/ compiled by Americus Symmes from the writings of his father, Capt. John Cleves Symmes. Bradley & Gilbert, 1878.
“Hollow Earth.” The Dollop from SoundCloud, 14 May 2015, https://soundcloud.com/the-dollop/80-the-hollow-earth
by Sam Balistreri-Daum
A couple months back, while cataloging the British Admiralty charts in our nautical charts collection, I noticed along the coast and riverbanks of Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guyana) from 1938 and 1939 a series of parallel lines running perpendicular to the shores with names written between each line.
The long, narrow strips of land depicted on these 20th Century British charts are actually an interesting form of human geography called “long lots” or “ribbon farms” that come from the semi-feudal seigneurial system used by the French to administer their agricultural land in the colonies of North and South America. In this system, families would farm long narrow strips of land and pay rent under an agreement with the local seigneur or lord. The main advantage for farmers under this system was waterfront access for transportation and living in close proximity to neighboring farms while still having plenty of land. Some long lots were a few hundred feet wide while being miles deep. While the system was relatively outdated and was not always administratively maintained in the New World (especially once territory came under the control of another government such as the British), we can still see evidence of long lots on maps throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries and even in today’s satellite imagery. In the AGS Library Digital Map Collection it did not take long to find examples in both New Orleans (1884) and Prairie du Chien (1820) to find more examples of long lots:
Long lots are even visible today in satellite imagery near Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River. This image was taken from Google Maps:
These maps show us just one example of the many things that maps can tell us about our world and about ourselves. These maps and many more are available at the AGS Library and online in the digital collections. If you’d like to read more about long lots and the seignieurial system, the following websites were useful in gathering additional information for this post:
Michigan State Univeristy: Long Lots: How they came to be:
Wikipeida.org: “Ribbon Farm”:
by Sam Balistreri-Daum
One aspect of the 19th and 20th Century nautical charts that continues to amaze me is the craftsmanship. I am currently working on the AGS Library’s set of Argentinian charts. Working with charts in a variety of languages means learning the various nuances of how the language is used in cartography, especially abbreviations. One abbreviation that had us scratching our heads for a little while was “dib.”, which we would see in the bottom right margin of the sheet accompanied by a name. I later found that this stood for dubujado or drawn and was again impressed by the level of craftsmanship and precision that is involved in cartography, especially in the days before computers.
While cataloging the Argentinian charts I came across a chart containing keys for abbreviations, signals and topographic and hydrographic symbols used in the drawing of the charts in the series. This is a reference guide for those who would use the charts. Note the variety of styles that were done by hand before maps were engraved and then printed (click the image for an enlarged view).
…And now for something different but related. How did a cartographer learn the skills necessary to draw maps? For an example of this we turn to the Practischer Entwurf eines neu zuerrichtenden Urbariums (1792). The book contains practical illustrations of (fictional) maps meant as a “how to” guide for cartographic drawing. This volume contains beautiful colored examples of cartography, but perhaps the most fun are the fictional places depicted on the maps. One map features such locations as Schmaltz Aecker (lard lands), Hader Aecker (discord lands) and a section labeled Anger that despite translating to “green” is actually colored in yellow.
by Sam Balistreri-Daum
I have been working as an intern here at the American Geographical Society Library for the past few months, and my work is focused on indexing and cataloging 19th and 20th Century nautical charts. These charts originate in various countries consisting of hydrographic surveys from around the globe. This has been an amazing project to be involved with and I would like to share my progress on the French nautical charts created by the Service hydrographique de la Marine and its predecessor, the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine.
The Service hydrographique de la Marine (today the Service hydrographique et océanographique de la Marine or SHOM) is an office of the French Ministry of Defense, established in 1720. While there are obvious military and strategic implications for the creation of detailed nautical charts, the Service Hydrographique also provided a public service by making accurate charts available to navigators sailing for business and recreation. (Wikipedia) The collection of French nautical charts at the AGSL features charts from around the world including South and Central America, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Polar Regions, the Pacific Islands and Europe as well as world maps and various tidal and atmospheric charts.
The charts themselves are remarkable not only in their accuracy but in the standards employed in their presentation. The charts are printed using a method called intaglio printing, where the detail of the map itself is etched on a hard surface, such as copper, inked, and then pressed to paper. The AGSL collections also features a guide to the design and creation of these charts entitled Dispositions Générales Relatives aux Cartes et Plans (1914).
Dispositions Générales Relatives aux Cartes et Plans (1914).
This guide was helpful in understanding the structure and format of nautical charts from the presentation of scale, terminology and printing methods. Here are a few formatting examples from among the many that are included in this great resource.