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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide

Thematic Atlases

World map showing botanical geography.  A section at the top shows the plants that appear in five major mountain ranges.
Alexander Keith Johnston. The physical atlas: a series of maps & notes illustrating the geographical distribution of natural phenomena. 1848. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

This map of botanical geography, derived from the work of German geographer Alexander von Humboldt and Danish botanist Joakim Frederik Schouw, is from Heinrich Berghaus's three-volume Physikalischer Atlas (Gotha, 1845), the first atlas to portray the physical geography of the world. Consisting of some ninety maps, the atlas is divided into eight sections: meteorology and climatology, hydrology and hydrography, geology, earth magnetism, botanical geography, zoological geography, anthropogeography, and ethnography.

The rise of thematic or special purpose cartography, which focuses on mapping the distribution of single or multiple interrelated phenomena, had its origins in the advances in the natural sciences in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly with the collection of vast amounts of scientific data and the search for innovative techniques of presenting this data graphically. Examples of early physical geography atlases in the Library include Alexander von Humboldt's Atlas géographique et physique du royaume de la Nouvelle-Espagne (Paris, 1811), which records his observations during a 1799 to 1804 expedition to South and Central America; Heinrich Berghaus's three-volume Physikalischer Atlas (Gotha, 1845 1848), the first atlas to portray the physical geography of the world; Alexander Keith Johnston's Physical Atlas (Edinburgh, 1848), an English adaptation of the Berghaus atlas; and Traugott Broome's Atlas zu Alex. v. Humboldt's Kosmos [Stuttgart, 1851 1853], which was prepared to accompany Humboldt's five-volume Kosmos, a complete physical geography of the universe.

The focus of thematic atlases expanded to include the broad geographical topics of population, culture, agriculture, land use, and transportation. In the United States, the first atlases focusing exclusively on population were the U.S. Census Office's Statistical Atlas of the United States Based on the Results of the Ninth Census 1870 (New York, 1874), compiled by Francis A. Walker, and Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States (New York, 1883), compiled by Fletcher W. Hewes and Henry H. Gannett from the 1880 census. Subsequent statistical atlases were published by the U.S. Census Office for the 1890, 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses. In recent years, more specialized atlases have appeared including such topics as religion, archaeology, skiing, water management, and ocean resources.