Behold a 19th-Century Atlas of the United States, Designed for Blind Students (1837)

In 1835, the New Eng­land Insti­tu­tion for Edu­ca­tion of the Blind (now known as Perkins School for the Blind) acquired a print­ing press.

Under the lead­er­ship of its first direc­tor, Samuel Gri­d­ley Howe, the press was cus­tomized in order to print in raised text that allowed blind and visu­al­ly impaired peo­ple to read unas­sist­ed.

Inclu­siv­i­ty was a prime moti­va­tor for Howe, who strove to make sure his stu­dents would not be “doomed to inequal­i­ty” or regard­ed as “mere objects of pity.”

After inves­ti­gat­ing Euro­pean tac­tile print­ing sys­tems, he devel­oped Boston Line Type, an embossed Roman alpha­bet that could be read with the fin­gers.

It eschewed flour­ish­es and cap­i­tal let­ters, but read­ing it required a lot of train­ing and even then, was like­ly to be slow going. Howe esti­mat­ed that read­ing it would take three times as long as a sight­ed per­son would take to read an equiv­a­lent amount of tra­di­tion­al­ly print­ed text.

Ulti­mate­ly it proved far less user-friend­ly than braille.

Text accom­pa­ny­ing the exhi­bi­tion Touch This Page! Mak­ing Sense of the Ways We Read, notes that braille had been in use in Great Britain and France for decades before being wide­ly adopt­ed in the US:

The amount of time and mon­ey that Perkins and oth­er Amer­i­can schools had invest­ed into Boston Line Type made them resis­tant to adopt­ing a new sys­tem. Boston Line Type was, how­ev­er, much hard­er to learn than braille, and only braille allowed indi­vid­u­als with visu­al impair­ments to read and write tac­tile­ly.

The school used its Boston Line Type press to pub­lish his­to­ry, gram­mar, and spelling books, as well as the New Tes­ta­ment, and a com­plete Bible.

After a vis­it to the school, Charles Dick­ens paid to have 250 Boston Line Type copies of his nov­el The Old Curios­i­ty Shop print­ed for dis­tri­b­u­tion to blind Amer­i­cans.

In light of Touch This Page!’s asser­tion that Boston Line Type’s print forms were “designed to be uni­ver­sal­ly acces­si­ble rather than in those [print forms] most acces­si­ble to the touch”, we sus­pect that the school’s 1837 Atlas of the Unit­ed States offered its read­ers the best val­ue.

While there were many dense descrip­tive pas­sages in Boston Line Type to wade through, it also boast­ed embossed maps to ori­ent geog­ra­phy stu­dents with raised out­lines of each state.

Rivers were chart­ed as sol­id raised lines, while oceans were indi­cat­ed with par­al­lel lines. Sets of tri­an­gles rep­re­sent­ed moun­tains.

Lon­gi­tudes, lat­i­tudes, and city loca­tions were also not­ed, but the pres­ence of neg­a­tive space gave blind and low vision stu­dents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to grasp infor­ma­tion quick­ly.

50 copies were print­ed, of which four sur­vive.

Explore the Atlas of the Unit­ed States Print­ed for the Use of the Blind here.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Tac­tile Map of the Roman Empire: An Inno­v­a­tive Map That Allowed Blind & Sight­ed Stu­dents to Expe­ri­ence Geog­ra­phy by Touch (1888)

Please Touch the Art: Watch a Blind Man Expe­ri­ence His Own Por­trait for the First Time

Braille Neue: A New Ver­sion of Braille That Can Be Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly Read by the Sight­ed and the Blind

Helen Keller Had Impec­ca­ble Hand­writ­ing: See a Col­lec­tion of Her Child­hood Let­ters

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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