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7:51pm on Wednesday, 21st November, 2012:

Grammar School Geography


As I've mentioned before, one of the things I collect is maps of Europe from 1869. Almost all of these are taken from school atlases of the period. What happens is that an antique bookseller will occasionally come across such an atlas, and either they or a dealer will take it to pieces and sell the maps individually. This means that more people can get what they want: if I only collect maps of Europe and someone in New York only collects maps of the USA, we can both have what we're looking for from a single textbook. As a consequence, you can make more money from selling a broken-up atlas than you can from selling an actual atlas. This means that complete atlases from the period are becoming increasingly rare.

Nevertheless, I managed to buy one recently on eBay. After paying another £6.42 in import duty, plus another £8 in "administrative fees" for paying the £6.42 over the Internet, I went to collect it from the post office today. It had actually arrived yesterday, but no-one was in (or rather, my father-in-law was in but didn't hear the doorbell — entirely probably because the postman didn't ring it).

Here it is, Cornell's Grammar School Geography:

It's American, so the pages are US Letter size (8½ inches by 11 inches). The front cover is pretty worn, as you can see; the back is, too, which is a shame as it has some interesting-looking advertisements on it for other textbooks and a large picture of the five-storey Appleton & Co. book store.

When I buy individual maps, I often find on the back some interesting text accompanying the map (or some other map I didn't buy). This is usually to do with learning how to use maps rather than learning facts, which seems to have passed modern educators by. If someone asks you "between what degrees of latitude do Turkey and Greece extend?" (as does lesson CXXXV), it's not trying to get you to memorise a number, it's trying to equip you to eventually be able to look something up on a map given its latitude and longitude. Normally, I only have snippets of this kind of text available to me, so I never get a full sense of what these old books teach. However, with a whole book, I can take a look. Actually, it's pretty interesting stuff.

Most of the physical geography remains the same now as it did then. Mountains haven't moved. Trade winds don't follow different paths. Political geography has changed, though, and not only in terms of borders. For example, you won't find anything like this in contemporary textbooks (I hope):

There are also pictures of some of the more notable flora and fauna of each continent. Here's the one for North America:

Who knew the place was so teeming with wildlife?

Teeming too much, apparently: here's another image of a kind you don't see in many geography textbooks today:

Because the book is American, it naturally focuses on American geography. The map of North America includes Russian America (today's Alaska) and Danish America (today's Greenland) as well as British America (Canada) and the United States. It goes into detail about individual states, which isn't something I want to know about now but may do one day. As I was thumbing through, though, I found three pieces of paper wedged in between Mississippi and Louisiana. This is what they say:

They came out separately so I don't know what the original order was. This certainly isn't something you find when you buy maps from broken-up books, though.

The maps themselves are so-so in terms of quality. Here's the one for Europe that I would have tried to buy if it had been separate:

This close-up over the UK shows you what's wrong with it:

The alignment for the red (borders) and blue (sea) doesn't match that for the black (everything else), or indeed for each other. These aren't maps you would necessarily want to frame and hang on the wall for their prettiness. That may be why the atlas has survived intact for so long.

Finally, here's what the American scholars of 1869 knew about Africa:

Basically, not a lot..!

I'm going to have a lot of fun reading through this, it looks as if it could give me quite a few insights into how the western world saw itself 143 years ago.

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Copyright © 2012 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).