The Mother of All Maps of the “Father of Waters”: Behold the 11-Foot Traveler’s Map of the Mississippi River (1866)

Image cour­tesy of the David Rum­sey Map Cen­ter

Every­body knows a fact or two about the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, even those who’ve nev­er set foot there. At the very least, they know the US is a big coun­try, but it’s one thing to know that and anoth­er to tru­ly under­stand the scale involved. Today we offer you an arti­fact from car­to­graph­ic his­to­ry that illus­trates it vivid­ly: a 19th-cen­tu­ry trav­el­er’s map of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er that, in order to dis­play the length of that mighty 2,320-mile water­way, extends to a full eleven feet. (Or, for those espe­cial­ly unfa­mil­iar with how things are in Amer­i­ca, dis­plays the river’s full 3,734-kilometer length at a full 3.35 meters.)

With a width of only three inch­es (or 7.62 cen­time­ters), the Rib­bon Map of the Father of Waters came on a spool the read­er could use to unroll it to the rel­e­vant sec­tion of the riv­er any­where between the Gulf of Mex­i­co and north­ern Min­neso­ta. First pub­lished in 1866, just a year after the end of the Civ­il War, the map “was mar­ket­ed toward tourists, who were flock­ing to the Mis­sis­sip­pi to see the sights and ride the steam­boats.” So writes Atlas Obscu­ra’s Cara Giamo, who quotes art his­to­ri­an Nenette Luar­ca-Shoaf as describ­ing the riv­er as “a source of great awe. That kind of length, that kind of spa­cious­ness was incom­pre­hen­si­ble to a lot of folks who were com­ing from the East Coast.”

Luar­ca-Shoaf describes the map, an inven­tion of St. Louis entre­pre­neurs Myron Coloney and Sid­ney B. Fairchild, in more detail in an arti­cle of her own at Com­mon-Place. “The com­plete­ly unfurled map extends beyond the lim­its of the user’s reach, won­drous­ly embody­ing the scope of the riv­er in the time it took to unroll it and in the eleven feet of space it now occu­pies,” she writes. “At the same time, the care required to wind the strip back into Coloney and Fairchild’s patent­ed spool appa­ra­tus reit­er­ates the pre­car­i­ous­ness of human con­trol — either rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al or envi­ron­men­tal — over the mer­cu­r­ial Mis­sis­sip­pi.” We still today talk about “scrolling” maps, though we now mean it as noth­ing more than a dig­i­tal metaphor.

Unwieldy though it may seem, the Rib­bon Map of the Father of Waters must have struck its trav­el-mind­ed buy­ers in the 1860s — some 150 years before tech­nol­o­gy put touch­screens in all of our hands — as the height of car­to­graph­ic con­ve­nience. Despite hav­ing sold out their Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er map quick­ly enough to neces­si­tate a sec­ond edi­tion, though, Coloney and Fairchild did lit­tle more with their patent­ed con­cept. You can see a sur­viv­ing exam­ple of the Rib­bon Map in greater detail at the Library of Con­gress and the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion. The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of riv­er tourists yearn­ing for an under­stand­ing of the sur­pris­ing breadth of Amer­i­ca’s land and depth of its his­to­ry may even con­sti­tute suf­fi­cient mar­ket for a repli­ca. But what hap­pens when it gets wet?

via Atlas Obscu­ra and Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All the Rivers & Streams in the U.S. Shown in Rain­bow Colours: A Data Visu­al­iza­tion to Behold

William Faulkn­er Draws Maps of Yok­na­p­ataw­pha Coun­ty, the Fic­tion­al Home of His Great Nov­els

Learn the Untold His­to­ry of the Chi­nese Com­mu­ni­ty in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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