National Geographic Has Digitized Its Collection of 6,000+ Vintage Maps: See a Curated Selection of Maps Published Between 1888 and Today

As some of the finest fic­tion­al world-builders have under­stood, few things excite the imag­i­na­tion like a map. And despite the geo­graph­i­cal lim­i­ta­tion implied by its title, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic’s maps have sur­veyed the entire globe and beyond. The magazine’s arti­cles have not always pre­sent­ed an enlight­ened point of view, but for all its his­tor­i­cal fail­ings, the rich­ly-illus­trat­ed month­ly has excelled as a show­case for car­tog­ra­phy, over which read­ers might spend hours, pro­ject­ing them­selves into unknown lands, jour­ney­ing through the care­ful­ly-drawn topogra­phies, cityscapes, and celes­tial charts.

Start­ed as the offi­cial jour­nal of the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Soci­ety, the mag­a­zine has amassed a huge, 130-year archive of  “edi­to­r­i­al car­tog­ra­phy,” the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic site writes. “Now, for the first time,” that col­lec­tion is avail­able online, “every map ever pub­lished in the mag­a­zine since the first issue of Octo­ber 1888.”

The entire archive is only avail­able to sub­scribers (how­ev­er you can find curat­ed selec­tions on the Nat­Ge­oMaps Twit­ter, Insta­gram, and Face­book accounts), but we can still see an aston­ish­ing qual­i­ty and vari­ety on dis­play in dozens of maps on social media of every con­ceiv­able loca­tion, top­ic, and event, begin­ning with the very first pub­lished map, depict­ing the Great White Hur­ri­cane, “one of the most severe bliz­zards to ever hit the Unit­ed States” (above)—the “start of a long tra­di­tion… of enhanc­ing sto­ry­telling with maps.”

As long­time read­ers of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic well know, the maps—often sep­a­ra­ble from the mag­a­zine in fold-outs suit­able for hang­ing on the wall—function as more than visu­al aids. They tell their own sto­ries. “A map is able to con­nect with some­body in a dif­fer­ent way than a text will or a pho­to will,” notes the magazine’s direc­tor of car­tog­ra­phy Mar­tin Gamache. Maps “engage with a dif­fer­ent part of our psy­che or our brain.” From its ear­li­est artic­u­la­tion, geog­ra­phy has inclined toward the poet­ic. The ancient geo­g­ra­ph­er Stra­bo cred­it­ed Homer as “the founder of geo­graph­i­cal sci­ence,” who “reached the utmost lim­its of the earth, tra­vers­ing it in his imag­i­na­tion.” Maps present us with a visu­al poet­ry often Home­r­ic in its scope.

Though so many of these maps are detach­able, it often helps to under­stand the spe­cif­ic con­text in which they were cre­at­ed, which doesn’t always appear in a self-con­tained leg­end. The map above, for exam­ple, pub­lished in March 1966, shows the Krem­lin “in unprece­dent­ed detail,” as the magazine’s Twit­ter account points out: “Sovi­et reg­u­la­tions pro­hib­it­ed aer­i­al pho­tos, so artists col­lect­ed dia­grams and ground-lev­el pho­tos to draft a sketch that was brought to Moscow and cor­rect­ed on the spot.” Fur­ther up, we see a map of Mex­i­co from May 1914, “one of the first gen­er­al ref­er­ence maps of the coun­try” from the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic archive. The map at the top, from the Decem­ber 1922 issue, is the magazine’s very first pub­lished gen­er­al ref­er­ence map of the world.

There are maps celes­tial, as above from 1957, and architectural—such as recent dig­i­tal recre­ations of King Tut’s tomb, late­ly revealed to have no hid­den cham­bers left to explore. Maps of plan­ets beyond the solar sys­tem and plan­ets (or “dwarf plan­ets”) with­in it, such as this first pub­lished map of Plu­to. Maps of rivers like the Rhine and spec­tac­u­lar nat­ur­al for­ma­tions like the Grand Canyon. There are even maps of flow­ers, like that pub­lished below in May 1968, show­ing “the ori­gins of 117 types of blooms.” Some maps are much less joy­ous, like this recent series show­ing what the world might look like if all of the ice melt­ed. Some are pure­ly for fun, like this series on the geog­ra­phy of Star Wars and oth­er fic­tion­al fran­chis­es.

If we can imag­ine it, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic sug­gests, we can map it, and con­verse­ly, when we see a map, our imag­i­na­tions are imme­di­ate­ly engaged. Learn more at the Nat­Geo blog All Over the Map, and con­nect with many more curat­ed maps from this huge col­lec­tion at the magazine’s Twit­ter, Insta­gram, and Face­book accounts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Map Show­ing How the Ancient Romans Envi­sioned the World in 40 AD

The Illus­trat­ed Med­i­c­i­nal Plant Map of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca (1932): Down­load It in High Res­o­lu­tion

An Inter­ac­tive Map Shows Just How Many Roads Actu­al­ly Lead to Rome

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

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

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

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 (1)
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.