Teaching and Talking about Race with Maps at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education (Part of a Series)

Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, A Food Map of the United States showing the part played by each of our states in supplying the nation’s larder, 1932.

Teaching and Talking about Race with Maps at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education (Part of a Series)

Libby Bischof, Ph.D., Executive Director, Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, and Professor of History, University of Southern Maine (first written and published in June of 2020). 

One way we engage in conversations about race and racism with students and educators who come into the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education is through the close examination of pictorial maps, especially pictorial maps made in the United States in the 1920s-1940s, many of which are replete with racial and ethnic stereotypes. These maps are tricky. At first glance they often appear fun, colorful, and innocuous, until you start looking closer. They are often meant to be instructive, and/or humorous; they are frequently insidious.

In the map library, we often facilitate discussions with students by placing maps in context with other maps made in the same era, and by explaining the historical context of the map’s creation (and the artist or cartographer who created it). Looking, and looking again (and again) is encouraged. We aim to always go beyond a student’s first glance. Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) can be effective in looking at pictorial maps to prompt discussion: “What is going on in this picture?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” “What more can we find?” [We often substitute the word “picture” with “map”].

Let’s look at one example of a pictorial map from our collections: “A Food Map of the United States showing the part played by each of our states in supplying the nation’s larder,” made in 1932 by Louis Delton Fancher, a well-known commercial illustrator and poster designer. At first glance, the object is a colorful pictorial map of the United States showing the signature foods produced by each state. The map was commissioned by the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (also known as the A&P chain of grocery stores) for its exhibition at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. After shifting their focus from tea to (discount) grocery stores in 1912, by the early-1930s, when this map was made, A&P became America’s largest retailer (2x bigger than Sears), and was beginning to invest in “supermarkets,” a concept we are all now familiar with. A&P’s supplier influence and market control was significant; wholesalers sold to the chain for less, and they passed on the deep discounts to customers. Indeed, one can look at the insets on the map and see the buyers, warehouses, and market reach of the company. 

After providing some context, we encourage students (and you, the reader) to look at the map. Really look at it. Go state by state. Once you begin to look beyond the colorful vegetables and produce, you will see depictions of people and animals interspersed between all of the agricultural products. To create this poster, Fancher employed nearly every racial and ethnic stereotype at his disposal–from indigenous peoples to Mexicans, to Asian men (showcased near rice in the Carolinas, Arkansas, and California) and many more. But no stereotypes are more egregious than his racialized and dehumanized portrayals of black men. These individuals are pictured as a black face, with enormous red mouths, and white eyes–much in the style of blackface minstrelsy performances. They have exaggerated stick legs, and are the only group whose clothes are ill-fitting, with pants too short, and no shoes. In equal measure, they are shown laboring in the fields of the South, or, just as telling, they are shown not doing labor, but running from it, or stealing and eating watermelons (another common stereotype). If you look to the bottom right of the map, off the coast of Florida, a half-clothed black man is shown fleeing a shark. In the Eastern corner of Texas, a white cowboy fires a gun at a black man, who is depicted fleeing from a watermelon patch. In Kentucky, a group of caricatured black men and women perform outside a barn. There are white men (and a few women, mostly churning dairy) depicted as well, and while they are cartoonish, they are not racial caricatures. In Maine, where we are located, a white man eats a giant ear of corn; no one is disturbing his meal. A robust fisherman wrangles a giant fish. White Wisconsinites gorge on cheese. Only the bees are busy in Iowa, but just south, in Missouri, a black man who is depicted eating a watermelon is being chastised by a white man. It is hard to even begin to parse what’s going on in North Dakota. In Oklahoma, the white men turn their guns on the indigenous population–with popular “Cowboys and Indians” stereotypes playing out on the map as they would have in movies of the same era. These artistic choices were intentional, not accidental, aimed at a largely white audience who would be expected find humor in the depictions (and yet not, tellingly, have to laugh at themselves). Why were these maps humorous in the 1930s? They are chilling now.

Let’s return to context. The Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, the city’s second world’s fair, was dedicated to science, modernity and industrial progress, and ran from 1933-1934. Even in the height of the Great Depression, more than 47 million people visited the fair during its two-year run. Issues of race at the fair were complex. While Chicago celebrated its 100th anniversary with the fair, black citizens pushed for recognition in the city’s founding. The major victory was the inclusion of a replica of Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable’s cabin, the city’s first purported “settler” in 1779 (this narrative obviously ignores thousands of years of continuous indigenous presence and settlement). Discrimination and stereotyping were far more prevalent–with many black workers relegated to menial jobs manning the bathrooms, and cleaning the streets, and black women employed as maids in the model homes. Black patrons of the fair reported widespread discrimination in food services (rectified in the fair’s second year by Illinois legislative act), and midway entertainments featured plantation shows, “exotic” African villages and dances, and minstrel performers. 

The A & P sponsored a large carnival area at the fair (also noted on the map), where they had an amphitheater and revolving stage for various puppet and song and dance acts, and commemorative carnival tokens. They also had an experimental kitchen on site. Hundreds upon thousands of people may have seen this pictorial map at the fair (and others Fancher made for the 75th anniversary of the A&P in 1934), not to mention all those who saw it hanging in A&P stores. Fair visitors could even buy a copy of the map with an accompanying booklet as a souvenir. The map was not out of context with stereotypes perpetuated at the fair itself–an extension of the ways white Americans were taught to see black Americans (as well as indigenous Americans and Asian Americans).

To effectively talk about race and racism in our collections (indeed, in all special collections) it is our responsibility to do the deep contextual work, and to help students and viewers unpack the ubiquity of these caricatures in the 1930s. This is a food map, from the nation’s largest retailer, celebrating America’s bounty and the progress of the United States (read the narrative on the bottom of the map) for a major international exhibition, but it is so much more. It is a primary source on 1930s era race relations, a map that others and stereotypes the non-white producers and consumers of these foods. It should also be noted that grocery chain stores like the A&P put many local grocers, black and white, out of business during the same era. 

We have half a million items in our collection; this is just one. One of our goals as a staff is to bring deeper context into our cataloguing and teaching, to call attention to these racist depictions, not just this week, but every week–to help students talk about the present with the objects of the past. 

To see the map in detail: https://oshermaps.org/map/53818.0001 

For a great article on race relations at the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition: August Meier and Elliott M. Rudwick, “Negro Protest at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1933-1934,” A Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Summer, 1966), pp. 161-171. 

For more on the history of the A & P: Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).