4000 Years of History Displayed in a 5‑Foot-Long “Histomap” (Early Infographic) From 1931

In the image above, we see a slice of an impres­sive pre-inter­net macro-info­graph­ic called a “His­tom­ap.” Its cre­ator John B. Sparks (who lat­er cre­at­ed “his­tom­aps” of reli­gion and evo­lu­tion) pub­lished the graph­ic in 1931 with Rand McNal­ly. The five foot long chart—purportedly cov­er­ing 4,000 years of “world” history—is, in fact, an exam­ple of an ear­ly illus­tra­tion trend called the “out­line,” of which Rebec­ca Onion at Slate writes: “large sub­jects (the his­to­ry of the world! Every school of phi­los­o­phy! All of mod­ern physics!) were dis­tilled into a form com­pre­hen­si­ble to the most une­d­u­cat­ed lay­man.” Here we have the full descrip­tion of most every polit­i­cal chart, graph, or ani­ma­tion in U.S.A. Today, most Inter­net news sites, and, of course, The Onion.

The sim­i­lar­i­ty here isn’t sim­ply one of form. The “out­line” func­tioned in much the same way that sim­pli­fied ani­ma­tions do—condensing heavy, con­tentious the­o­ret­i­cal freight trains and ide­o­log­i­cal bag­gage. Rebec­ca Onion describes the chart as an arti­fact very much of its time, pre­sent­ing a ver­sion of his­to­ry promi­nent in the U.S. between the wars. Onion writes:

The chart empha­sizes dom­i­na­tion, using col­or to show how the pow­er of var­i­ous “peo­ples” (a qua­si-racial under­stand­ing of the nature of human groups, quite pop­u­lar at the time) evolved through­out his­to­ry.

Sparks’ map, how­ev­er, remains an inter­est­ing doc­u­ment because of its seem­ing dis­in­tered­ness. While the focus on racial­ism and impe­r­i­al con­quest may seem to place Sparks in com­pa­ny with pop­ulist “sci­en­tif­ic” racists of the peri­od like Lothrop Stod­dard (whom Tom Buchanan quotes in Fitzgerald’s Gats­by), it would also seem that his design has much  in com­mon with ear­ly Enlight­en­ment fig­ures whose con­cep­tion of time was not nec­es­sar­i­ly lin­ear. Fol­low­ing clas­si­cal mod­els, thinkers like Thomas Hobbes tend­ed to divide his­tor­i­cal epochs into ris­ing and falling actions of var­i­ous peo­ple groups, rather than the grad­ual ascent of one race over all oth­ers towards an end of his­to­ry. For exam­ple, poet Abra­ham Cow­ley writes a com­pressed “uni­ver­sal his­to­ry” in his 1656 poem “To Mr. Hobbes,” mov­ing from Aris­to­tle (the “Sta­girite”) to the poem’s sub­ject Thomas Hobbes. The move­ment is pro­gres­sive, yet the his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of each civ­i­liza­tion receive some equal weight and sim­i­lar empha­sis.

Long did the mighty Sta­girite retain
The uni­ver­sal Intel­lec­tu­al reign,
Saw his own Coun­treys short-liv’ed Leop­ard slain;
The stronger Roman-Eagle did out-fly,
Oft­ner renewed his Age, and saw that Dy.
Mecha it self, in spight of Mahumet pos­s­est,
And chas’ed by a wild Del­uge from the East,
His Monar­chy new plant­ed in the West.
But as in time each great impe­r­i­al race
Degen­er­ates, and gives some new one place:

The peri­od of Cow­ley rec­og­nized the­o­ries of racial, cul­tur­al, and nat­ur­al suprema­cy, but such qual­i­ties, as in Sparks’ map, were the prod­uct of a long line of suc­ces­sion from equal­ly pow­er­ful and note­wor­thy empires and groups to oth­ers, not a social evo­lu­tion in which a supe­ri­or race nat­u­ral­ly arose. Rand McNal­ly adver­tised the chart as pre­sent­ing “the march of civ­i­liza­tion, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monar­chis­tic glam­our of the mid­dle ages to the liv­ing panora­ma of life in present day Amer­i­ca.” While the blurb is filled with pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic colo­nial­ist talk­ing points, the chart itself has the dat­ed, yet strik­ing­ly egal­i­tar­i­an arrange­ment of infor­ma­tion that—like much of the illus­tra­tion in Nation­al Geo­graph­ic—sought to accom­mo­date the best con­sen­sus mod­els of the times, dis­play­ing, but not pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, its bias­es.

via Slate’s The Vault

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Crash Course in World His­to­ry

The Com­plete His­to­ry of the World (and Human Cre­ativ­i­ty) in 100 Objects

The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy, from 600 B.C.E. to 1935, Visu­al­ized in Two Mas­sive, 44-Foot High Dia­grams

Caught Map­ping: A Cin­e­mat­ic Ride Through the Nit­ty Grit­ty World of Vin­tage Car­tog­ra­phy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.