Emma Willard, the First Woman Mapmaker in America, Creates Pioneering Maps of Time to Teach Students about Democracy (Circa 1851)

We all know Mar­shall McLuhan’s pithy, end­less­ly quotable line “the medi­um is the mes­sage,” but rarely do we stop to ask which one comes first. The devel­op­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies may gen­uine­ly present us with a chick­en or egg sce­nario. After all, only a cul­ture that already prized con­stant visu­al stim­uli but gross­ly under­val­ued phys­i­cal move­ment would have invent­ed and adopt­ed tele­vi­sion.

In Soci­ety of the Spec­ta­cle, Guy Debord ties the ten­den­cy toward pas­sive visu­al con­sump­tion to “com­mod­i­ty fetishism, the dom­i­na­tion of soci­ety by ‘intan­gi­ble as well as tan­gi­ble things,’ which reach­es its absolute ful­fill­ment in the spec­ta­cle, where the tan­gi­ble world is replaced by a selec­tion of images which exist above it, and which simul­ta­ne­ous­ly impose them­selves as the tan­gi­ble par excel­lence.” It seems an apt descrip­tion of a screen-addict­ed cul­ture.

What can we say, then, of a cul­ture addict­ed to charts and graphs? Ear­li­est exam­ples of the form were often more elab­o­rate than we’re used to see­ing, hand-drawn with care and atten­tion. They were also not coy about their ambi­tions: to con­dense the vast dimen­sions of space and time into a two-dimen­sion­al, col­or-cod­ed for­mat. To tidi­ly sum up all human and nat­ur­al his­to­ry in easy-to-read visu­al metaphors.

This was as much a reli­gious project as it was a philo­soph­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, and ped­a­gog­i­cal one. The domains are hope­less­ly entwined in 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry. We should not be sur­prised to see them freely min­gle  the ear­li­est info­graph­ics. The cre­ators of such images were poly­maths, and deeply devout. Joseph Priest­ly, Eng­lish chemist, philoso­pher, the­olo­gian, polit­i­cal the­o­rist and gram­mar­i­an, made sev­er­al visu­al chronolo­gies rep­re­sent­ing “the lives of two thou­sand men between 1200 BC and 1750 AD” (con­vey­ing a clear mes­sage about the sole impor­tance of men).

“After Priest­ly,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review, “time­lines flour­ished, but they gen­er­al­ly lacked any sense of the dimen­sion­al­i­ty of time, rep­re­sent­ing the past as a uni­form march from left to right.” Emma Willard, “one of the century’s most influ­en­tial edu­ca­tors” set out to update the tech­nol­o­gy, “to invest chronol­o­gy with a sense of per­spec­tive.” In her 1836 Pic­ture of Nations; or Per­spec­tive Sketch of the Course of Empire, above (view and down­load high res­o­lu­tion images here), she presents “the bib­li­cal Cre­ation as the apex of a tri­an­gle that then flowed for­ward in time and space toward the view­er.”

The per­spec­tive is also a forced point of view about ori­gins and his­to­ry. But that was exact­ly the point: these are didac­tic tools meant for text­books and class­rooms. Willard, “America’s first pro­fes­sion­al female map­mak­er,” writes Maria Popo­va, was also a “pio­neer­ing edu­ca­tor,” who found­ed “the first women’s high­er edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tion in the Unit­ed States when she was still in her thir­ties…. In her ear­ly for­ties, she set about com­pos­ing and pub­lish­ing a series of his­to­ry text­books that raised the stan­dards and sen­si­bil­i­ties of schol­ar­ship.”

Willard rec­og­nized that lin­ear graphs of time did not accu­rate­ly do jus­tice to a three-dimen­sion­al expe­ri­ence of the world. Humans are “embod­ied crea­tures who yearn to locate them­selves in space and time.” The illu­sion of space and time on the flat page was an essen­tial fea­ture of Willard’s under­ly­ing pur­pose: “lay­ing out the ground-plan of the intel­lect, so far as the whole range of his­to­ry is con­cerned.” A prop­er under­stand­ing of a Great Man (and at least one Great Woman, Hypa­tia) ver­sion of history—easily con­densed, since there were only around 6,000 years from the cre­ation of the universe—would lead to “enlight­ened and judi­cious sup­port­ers” of democ­ra­cy.

His­to­ry is rep­re­sent­ed lit­er­al­ly as a sacred space in Willard’s 1846 Tem­ple of Time, its prov­i­den­tial begin­nings for­mal­ly bal­anced in equal pro­por­tion to its every mon­u­men­tal stage. Willard’s intent was express­ly patri­ot­ic, her trap­pings self-con­scious­ly clas­si­cal. Her maps of time were ways of sit­u­at­ing the nation as a nat­ur­al suc­ces­sor to the empires of old, which flowed from the divine act of cre­ation. They show a pro­gres­sive widen­ing of the world.

“Half a cen­tu­ry before W.E.B. Du Bois… cre­at­ed his mod­ernist data visu­al­iza­tions for the 1900 World’s Fair,” Popo­va writes, The Tem­ple of Time “won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in Lon­don.” Willard accom­pa­nied the info­graph­ic with a state­ment of intent, artic­u­lat­ing a media the­o­ry, over a hun­dred years before McLuhan, that sounds strange­ly antic­i­pa­to­ry of his famous dic­tum.

The poet­ic idea of “the vista of depart­ed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medi­um, the pic­ture will, by fre­quent inspec­tion, be formed with­in, and for­ev­er remain, wrought into the liv­ing tex­ture of the mind.

Learn more about Emma Willard’s info­graph­ic rev­o­lu­tion at the Pub­lic Domain Review and Brain Pick­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Joseph Priest­ley Visu­al­izes His­to­ry & Great His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures with Two of the Most Influ­en­tial Info­graph­ics Ever (1769)

An Archive of 800+ Imag­i­na­tive Pro­pa­gan­da Maps Designed to Shape Opin­ions & Beliefs: Enter Cornell’s Per­sua­sive Maps Col­lec­tion

Down­load 91,000 His­toric Maps from the Mas­sive David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

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

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

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!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.