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American Women: Resources from the Geography and Map Collections

Graphic Images on Maps

John Wallis. The United States of America laid down from the best authorities, agreeable to the Peace of 1783. 1783. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

A variety of visual art material appearing on maps provides an additional source of information about women and their roles in society. For example, cartouches—the scroll-shaped frames containing the map's title, author, and publication information—often contain drawings or engravings. Designed as decorative features of the map, and including elaborate figures, scenes, and illustrations related to the map's content, they also reflect cultural perceptions related to place. Cartouches and other drawings on early modern maps frequently depict the prevailing image of the country or continent shown by feminine personifications, often with Europe portrayed as a genteel lady and America as a Native American woman.

The contrast between America and Europe was emphasized by European cartographers such as Joel Gascoyne, whose 1682 map of Carolina shows a bare-breasted, seductive America (see below). Perhaps the best-known allegorical image comes from one of the most important maps ever published of America, the John Mitchell map, which was used to draw the boundaries of the newly independent nation. Mitchell's map shows a Native American woman seated above a male figure with symbols of New World richness—corn, lumber, fishing nets, a beaver, and coconut palm trees (see below). The Native American theme on cartouches gradually gave way to a new image of “Liberty,” an Anglo-Saxon woman who was often surrounded by symbols of freedom. One of the best known images in this genre can be seen on the 1783 Wallis map of the United States.

Joel Gascoyne. A new map of the country of Carolina. 1682. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
John Mitchell. A map of the British and French dominions in North America : with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements. [1755?]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Advertisements provide additional visual images related to time and place. Twentieth-century road maps published by major oil companies sometimes feature cover art such as the young, attractive woman driving her automobile along the open road, suggesting the growing independence of women (see illustration). A survey of road maps for Michigan, home of the automobile industry, indicates that during the decade of the 1930s more of these “independent women” appeared as artwork on maps than they did during the 1920s and 1940s. Oil company maps of all periods advertise the availability of clean restrooms to women and girls traveling by automobile. Road maps are filed in the "Title Collection" (see "Using the Collections") under the name of the state and the subject “roads”; sometimes they are also found under “gas” or “gasoline.”

H.M. Coushá. Detail from "Shell road map: Pennsylvania" showing woman driving a car with license plates in the background. 1933. Lib rary of Congress Geography and Map Division.

As the popularity of the automobile grew during the middle decades of the twentieth century, a new form of map became increasingly available. Primarily distributed by oil companies, road maps were found in almost every car in America. Their graphic designs illustrate life in America, particularly changes in society brought about by the widespread use of the automobile, including the growing independence of women. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division.

Some thematic atlases contain more text, artwork, and photographs than maps. An example is the Illustrated Atlas of Native American History edited by Myers, Carlson, and Bowman. Although the volume contains many maps, its primary value to scholars is its illustrations. There are photographs of the Cherokee Female Seminary, which was the first institution west of the Mississippi established solely for the education of women, and many illustrations, some taken from maps and government surveying reports. Artistic renditions of Native American life, pictographs, a formal portrait of Pocahontas, and an engraving after John White's drawing of a Florida Native American woman are also found in this work.

A similar atlas entitled The Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans by Molefi K. Asante and Mark T. Mattson includes maps related to the life of Sojourner Truth. Other maps show African American women in the workforce, heads of household, birth rates, an age table for men and women, and the birthplaces of performing artists, including Leontyne Price, Mahalia Jackson, Josephine Baker, Diane McIntyre, Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, and Ruby Dee. The atlas also contains many photographs and illustrations, including a section on women's contributions to abolitionism and examples of advertisements for the sale of slaves, including women and children.

A wide variety of graphic material can be found throughout the collections of the Geography and Map Division. The Lowery Collection: A Descriptive List of Maps of the Spanish Possessions within the Present Limits of the United States, 1502-1820, by Woodbury Lowery, edited with notes by Philip Lee Phillips, not only provides a list of maps recording Spanish exploration and settlement in North America but also has beautiful, full-color images of women on its title page. Even the verso of World War II maps clipped from newspapers show women's clothing styles and accessories. Locating these resources is often time consuming but can be very rewarding.

Print Materials Referenced