Fair warning: this post has little to nothing to do with the Civil War, slavery, or any of that. That content will be back come Monday or, if I get inspired in the heat of the moment, sooner.

One of the first adult books I recall buying was a historical atlas. Back in the day, I asked for a globe for Christmas. That was around 1989, so it stopped matching the actual world rather quickly. I asked for another one.  I once bought a world almanac* and went to the country section, made a list of countries I did not know on sight, and looked them all up on a large world map. When I inherited a collection of National Geographic many years ago, I went through and extracted all the maps. A few years ago I got the DVD collection and started randomly paging through. Way back in the 1890s I found a map of the western United States marking things I did not recognize so I started reading the article accompanying it. Penetrating the rather academic nineteenth century prose took a bit, but I eventually realized that the Geographic, as it liked to call itself in those days, had given me a map of the state of land survey in the West.

I smiled and clapped my hands like a little boy (yes, really) because that map told me so much about late nineteenth century America. If the land was not surveyed, it wasn’t generally for sale and certainly was not heavily settled by white people. Across it I found places marked “little known.” Those tiny, and not so tiny, bits of terra incognita existed even in a nation on the verge of declaring its frontier closed. Even knowing how big a country I live in, and how much harder a time one had getting around it in the era before freeways and airplanes, that still amazes me a bit.

So yeah, I love maps. I really love historical maps. Hank Green brought that to mind today:

But I had another fun encounter with historical mapping. Yesterday I went out and picked up the September issue of National Geographic. I’ve somehow never gotten around to subscribing, but I pick up a few each year. I got this one because it promised a poster of the world without any permanent ice, a prospect both horrifying and fascinating. I’ve seen such maps before online, but I really wanted to have a great big one I could put up on my wall. I got home and immediately pulled out the map insert. I opened it and found…very little in the way of blue seas. Instead I had a mostly white world map. Furthermore, the map did not seem up to National Geographic’s modern standards. It was very plain and cramped. I almost put it up, but happened on the legend hiding in the South Pacific. There the map called itself:

The World prepared especially for The National Geographic Magazine, Gilbert Grosvenor, Editor, showing the political divisions, including those established after the World War.

It’s a reprint, because this is National Geographic’s 125th anniversary year. This one dates to 1922 and comes dripping with details about the world the year my grandfather turned eight. Trunk line railroads share space with airplane routes of three kinds (in operation, authorized but not yet in operation, and flown but not yet commercially adopted) and the average limit of icebergs and pack ice.

But overall, the map is about political borders for a very interesting era indeed. The World War has just ended. The great European land empires have gone, torn apart by their indigenous nationalist movements and the victorious Entente, but the European and American overseas empires still stand. In the South Pacific, the Japanese have a League of Nations mandate over the islands they took from the Germans. Their orange color also spreads over Korea, labeled Choson (Korea), An inch or two further over, China is much smaller. Partitioned out from it are Mongolia, which was an imperial possession until not long before, Inner Mongolia (Outer Mongolia is the one we have on our maps.), Tibet, and Sinkiang.

Did most Westerners in 1922 really understand those as separate places from China? I know they generally lived under Imperial remit in a kind of quasi-feudal situation before the Chinese Civil War really kicked into high gear, and that the British had launched independent diplomatic missions into Tibet in the nineteenth century, but I didn’t realize it that they saw it as a separate nation so early on. I thought that came later, in the 1930s or 1940s.

Africa, of course, wears European colors. Only Ethiopia and Liberia can claim native rule, and Liberia’s claim is a bit shaky. American rubber interests really ran the nation.

Over in Europe I find the more familiar time capsule, a map that matches quite closely the one any student of the Second World War knows with its Polish Corridor, but the border of Poland stretches up oddly as territory that Poland seized from Lithuania a few years earlier hasn’t yet been incorporated. Down in Greece, the map captures a brief moment in time: The Entente gave the Greeks large parcels of land on what we would call the Turkish coast. The Turks did not stand for that or other concessions forced on the Ottoman Empire, tossed the Sultan out, and waged a successful war to reverse most of them, leaving Turkey with its modern boundaries. By the end of 1922, they had won that war. The treaty to end it would come in the middle of 1923. A year later, or two years prior, this map would be entirely different.

Maybe you require a little bit of cartographic obsession to appreciate it, but there’s an amazing amount of data in this map. It’s still our world, with all the continents in the right places and almost all of the nations familiar to Americans, but at the same time so profoundly alien despite less than a century between then and now.

*If I have any younger readers, you might not know about these books. I think they still get printed, but the internet ate up a lot of their usefulness. Imagine a giant book full of statistics and facts about science, geography, and so forth updated yearly. Most also had color inserts with maps of the world, broken down by continent, national flags, and things like that.


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