Reading Historic Maps and General Resources on Cartography
How to Read Historic Maps

A historic map is a map drawn or printed in the past that fosters study and comprehension of the geography or geographical ideas of the time and place in which it was produced. A historical map is a modern map made to illustrate some past geographical situation or event. Hence, a map of Boston published in 1775 is a historic map; while a map prepared in 2002 to show Boston in 1775 is a historical map.

Old maps, like other historic documents, can be difficult to read. Being old, they look different from modern maps. They often use different symbols and were drawn or printed by different methods than the maps we are accustomed to. And most importantly, many of them have errors that have been subsequently corrected. Many maps of North America published in the sixteenth century, for example, showed California as an island. This, of course, did not mean that California was an island 400 years ago-but it does mean that the cartographers of the time were mistaken. Old maps, then, must be read with a great deal of caution-but then, so do most modern maps. For all maps present the world through the lenses of the cartographer's incomplete knowledge, his or her biases and pet ideas, interests, the needs of the audience. The geographical mistakes on old maps should not be dismissed as fantasies and myths. Indeed, what makes historic maps potentially so powerful as teaching tools are the differences between them and those familiar to us today. These differences help us decipher how people understood the world around them, how they settled the land, how they moved about in it, and how they felt about their neighbors.

The curator's notes attached to each of the modules in this website are intended to help you decipher the maps you find here. We hope that they will give you insights you can both share with your students and apply to the reading of other maps you may encounter. If you or your students have not studied old maps before, you might want to use the attached map analysis form to help you get started. The first page of this form asks some basic questions about a map, such as its title, orientation, and scale. From there, it asks you to consider how the context in which the made was made affected the way it was drawn, what it shows, and what it leaves out.

In order to make better use of maps in your classroom, you may also want to consult the General Resources on Cartography provided below. These explain the nuts and bolts of modern cartography from map projections, to graticules, to scales. And in some instances they also give you new ways to understand maps both old and new.


Bagrow, Leo and R. A. Skelton. History of Cartography. 2nd ed. Chicago, Ill.: New Brunswick, USA; Oxford, UK: Precedent Pub.; Distributed by Transaction Books, 1985.

Brown, Lloyd Arnold. The Story of Maps. Boston: Little, Brown, 1949., repr. 1980.

Buisseret, David, ed., From Sea Charts to Satellite Images: Interpreting North American History through Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Danzer, Gerald A. Discovering American History through Maps and Views. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Danzer, Gerald A. Discovering World History through Maps and Views. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Goss, John. The Mapmaker's Art: a History of Cartography. London: Studio Editions, 1993.

Goss, John. The Mapping of North America: Three Centuries of Map-Making. Secaucus, NJ: The Wellfleet Press, 1990.

Greenhood, David. Mapping. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Harley, J. B. and David Woodward. The History of Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987-.

Hodgkiss, A. G. Understanding Maps: a Systematic History of Their Use and Development. Folkestone, Kent: Dawson, 1981.

Holmes, Nigel. Pictorial Maps. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1991.

Monmonier, Mark S. and George A. Schnell. Map Appreciation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Monmonier, Mark. How to Lie with Maps. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Pearce, Margaret. Exploring Human Geography with Maps. New York: W.H. Freeman, 2003.

Ristow, Walter William. American Maps and Mapmakers: Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985.

Robinson, Arthur Howard. Elements of Cartography. 6th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.

Schwartz, Seymour I. and Ralph E. Ehrenberg. The Mapping of America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980.

Southworth, Michael and Susan Southworth. Maps, a Visual Survey and Design Guide. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.

Snyder, John Parr. Flattening the Earth; Two Thousand Years of Map Projections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Stefoff, Rebecca. The Young Oxford Companion to Maps and Mapmaking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thrower, Norman J. W. Maps and Civilization: Cartography and Culture in Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Turnbull, David. Maps are Territories; Science is an Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Wilford, John Noble. The Mapmakers. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Wood, Denis and John Fels. The Power of Maps. New York: Guilford Press, 1992.

Additional Sources
For additional background, you may wish to consult a comprehensive Concise Bibliography of the History of Cartography based on the Newberry Library's fine cartographic reference collection.

For further information about the Newberry Library's map collection click here.

For a general introduction about the worldwide study of the history of cartography and links to other online map resources consult The History of Cartography homepage. This resource includes an index to teaching with old maps.

© 2002, 2003   The Newberry Library
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