Skip to content

Martin Brückner, The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860 (Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2017), 350 pp.:

Martin Brückner, The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860 (Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2017), 350 pp.

When we look at a map on Google today, we hardly find any direct evidence of its producer, editor, or any trace of its making at all. However, there is so much more information a map provides than the depiction of spatial divisions; it can tell a whole story of social relations, economic circumstances, public, and political beliefs. Maps are alive—at least according to Martin Brückner’s newest study on The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860. Based on his assumptions, maps act within their own social environments as cultural agents. They shape and are shaped by social relations concerning the process of mapmaking and use of maps. The value of a map, Brückner argues, is not solely given by terms of trade and finances, but also in what way they reflect cultural experiences and beliefs. Thus, by analyzing a complex network of mapmakers, geographers / cartographers, artisans, publishers, salesmen, sponsors, consumers, and governmental institutions, he fills the gap in the Humanities concerning social relations surrounding and affecting an object and people. The observation of the map and people involved in its making and application, therewith, adds a new insight into the map’s status as a commodity of serving a common social or political good.

Brückner’s study is marked by a well-developed theoretical framework and methodological approach. According to his assumptions, which are based on notions by philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Karl Marx, maps are characterized as commodified objects that affect citizens’ life by defining, (re-)aligning and orientating their social relations. In addition, he refers to Henri Lefebvre’s work The Production of Space (1991), which concerns the imagination and construction of geographical and cultural spaces on maps in European countries during colonial times. The process of mapmaking at that time already reflects the interaction between map producers and consumers through the product itself. Both the representational mode of maps, which reveals the process of its construction and those involved in it, as well as the interest in and evaluation of maps by consumers depict the commercial and cultural value of a map.

In order to historicize the relationship between maps as commercial goods and social medium, Brückner furthermore introduces four methodological approaches which he points out as environmental, material, based on social experiences, and maps in relation to popular history. The methodologies do not only serve to explain the transformation of maps from rare to popular artefacts, but also help to understand how maps’ cartographic status changed from being mere tools of wayfinding and depiction of spatial divisions to becoming articles of faith. Thereby, the environmental part refers to maps as environments that actively influence social relations in the network of mapmaking and are, in return, affected by them. The material aspect concerns the economic and social network that involves the mapmaking process, but also includes customs and emotions of actors within it. Contrary to this view on how maps are affected from the outside, the third methodological parameter of social experiences relates to the maps’ effect on people in their everyday life and interaction with maps. Maps are, thereby, understood as what Brückner calls “sensory agents,” in other words, they are objects that have an impact on people’s actions and senses due to their materiality, form, and representation. The fourth, and last, methodology of popular history implicates the study’s focus on best-sellers; hence, maps that demonstrate pervasive and persistent social engagement measured by, for example, selling records.

Based on the theoretical framework and Brückner’s four methodological approaches which depict maps as cultural agents and understands them as environments that affect and are affected by social relations, The Social Life of Maps analyzes the development and changes of mapmaking as well as their material and social value and status as commodity among everyday American citizenry from the mid-eighteenth century to shortly before the beginning of the Civil War in three parts. The core assumption of the book, thereby, is that American maps of this time do not only depict how information was represented and organized, but also held social and political significance and emotional value due to the maps’ everyday interactions with people. In conclusion, Brückner points out the relevance of his research for current studies by asking how the way actors deal and engage with maps changes the overall understanding and perception of America.

The analytical part starts with the focus on American mapworks. It pertains in particular to the process of mapmaking, and how economic circumstances and relations, and technological innovations affected the shape, materiality, and value of maps. Brückner distinguishes between the artisanal map (1750-1790s), the manufactural map (1790-1820s), and the industrial map (1820s-1860). Whereas a map could be easily traced back to a single map artisan who conducted most of the data, research and payed for production and material costs himself until the end of the eighteenth century, technological innovations and business strategies changed the materiality and character of maps. From the 1820s on, the possibility to produce a larger amount of maps due to changes in paper and print technology as well as the forming of map production companies, which operated teams of artisans, printers, and editors, shifted the identification of a map with its actual maker to its producer, who was often the company owner. The representation of maps and their content, furthermore, became increasingly dependent on the demand of sponsors and customers. After the American Revolution up to the middle of the nineteenth century, an amplified emotional connection between maps’ depictions and national identification among American citizenry emerged. Thus, the use of maps in everyday life became normalized in various social and political areas such as education, private households, or public areas like libraries or reception halls. Whereas the book’s first part rather focuses on economic circumstances, technological innovations, and commercial issues, the other two parts emphasize the transformation of American maps to popular commodities that reflected emotional attachments as well as cultural and political beliefs.

The second part, therefore, takes a closer look at finished commercial maps and their relation to American consumers. The emphasis, thereby, lies on what Brückner calls the “spectacle” of maps; in other words, the emergence and use of maps in public and private settings, and how sensual experiences of maps define their value and reflect cultural significance. The increasing presence of especially large maps in American every-day life affected their evaluation in relation to the projection of nation and definition of culture. Hence, American maps became not only valuable with regard to its materiality and visual information they displayed, but also held emotional and cultural significance concerning how America was represented on maps in comparison to, for example, the global marketplace, or other nations and places in the world. Additionally, the amplified application of giant maps in public spaces like business offices, parlors, or theater halls ascribed a performative act between user, object, and consumer and, thus, transformed maps from a practical tool into an object addressing and affecting people’s senses and emotions.

The third part, on the other hand, concerns the relevance of smaller, unspectacular maps, and their relation to format and legibility, as well as a rising demand for maps among educational consumers. The major argument of the author here is that smaller maps facilitated the distribution of maps and normalized their usage in American everyday life as cultural agents. Due to their small size and enhanced transfer possibilities, small maps could be distributed easily between diverse populations and social environments. Especially in the world of education, not only educators but also schoolchildren were confronted with the use and interpretation of maps, as well as with the process of making them. Cartographic object lessons transferred the understanding and definition of domestic, national, and transnational boundaries to the social life of American citizens through the constant encounter with maps not as mere objects, but as cultural and sensual agents related to observations and emotions experienced in everyday life. Thus, maps were not only perceived as tools of wayfinding and defining spaces, but constructed connotations between natural formations and industrial and technological structures invented by men.

Altogether, Brückner concludes through the examination of a map’s biography that the analysis does not only provide information of spatial representation and the map’s function of wayfinding at the time of its making, but also informs about secondary uses that become visible at the intersection of material production, cartographic variety, and social engagement. Eventually, maps became part of the nation’s visual and linguistic consciousness, having the effect of depicting places of belonging and (national) identity among American citizens. By looking at early American maps’ materiality and status as commodity from the middle of the eighteenth century to 1860, Brückner fills a gap in explaining the process of how maps became common among American citizenry, as well as the economic and cultural value of American maps throughout that time. As promised at the beginning of his book, the author traces social and economic relations in the mapmaking process based on the assumption that maps themselves affect such relations as cultural and sensual agents, and provides profound answers to the question with regard to the transformation of early American maps from tools to objects of emotional significance and cultural belief.

Although Brückner presents much detailed information in his books which initially might overwhelm the reader, his arguments and examples cogently illustrate the theoretical and methodological framework introduced in the beginning. Ultimately, his references and background information turn out to be rather helpful in order to better understand the cases he presents, such as short explanations of Karl Marx’s notion on social relations between things. They also provide readers with additional sources for further research according to their expertise. Despite Brückner’s focus on cartographic history, the study of the social life of American maps is a valuable work with regard to other disciplines as well, concerning the methodological approach, structure, and references to further scientific sources. Thus, The Social Life of Maps presents opportunities for researchers in the Humanities, Social and Political Science, as well as Economy to follow economic, political, socio-cultural, or historical traces in the process of mapmaking and retrace relations involved in it according to their specific academic interests.

As Brückner concludes in his epilogue, his analytical approach on maps and how they affect and are affected by social and economic relations, is not limited to the timeframe of 1750 to 1860, but could also be applied to the life of American maps during or after the Civil War. And more so, his assumptions can generally be applied to relevant issues nowadays. Despite the fact that the digital age brought many changes for the perception and usage of maps in current everyday life, the process of mapmaking as well as what they present, how they perform, and being transferred, still provide critical information on political and cultural beliefs of various societies. Already twentieth- and twenty-first-century maps’ representation of disputed territories such as Israel and Palestine, or territorial claims between China and Taiwan, reveal differing political and cultural beliefs of people from various social backgrounds. If we keep in mind the productional, material, and social relations which have an impact on the shape, usage, and depiction of the map according to Martin Brückner’s assumptions related to his study of early American maps, even today maps can tell us different stories with regard to people’s faith and beliefs, and reveal their evaluation and interaction with maps.

Sandra Meerwein (Mainz)

Export Citation