Creating the Iconic Map


Matthew H. Edney

“It is first necessary to pay closer attention to the process by which the literal boundaries we take for granted were established. How did the physical entity known as the United States come into being? How did Americans who lived through the period before that physical entity took its apparently final form experience the process of formalization?”

                                                Anne Baker, Heartless Immensity (2006), 11-12.

The iconic use of an outline map first requires a stable outline. Yet the early U.S.A. was for a long time characterized by an unstable outline.

The colonists only mapped all the colonies together as a whole in reaction to external threats. French imperial expansion led Ben Franklin to create the first American logo map: the colonies are mapped ~ running along the eastern seaboard from “N[ew] E[ngland]” to “S[outh] C[arolina]” ~ as a snake whose self-inflicted wounds of political division would, unless healed, lead inevitably to defeat. Revolutionaries later used the same motif as an anti-British logo.

Benjamin Franklin. Join, or Die. From: The Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, 1754). 32 x 25 cm. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

From Left (South) to Right (North): S.C., South Carolina; N.C., North Carolina; V., Virginia; M., Maryland; P., Pennsylvania; N.J., New Jersey; N.Y., New York; N.E., New England.

Maps of all the colonies were actually made in Britain and show the imperial perspective. The example here is of a 1776 map published to inform the British about the opening events of the Revolution. Immediately after the 1783 Treaty of Paris, British and French geographers adapted the existing geographical frame to map the new country. U.S. geographers followed suit.


Sayer & Bennett, The Theatre of War in North America (London, 1776). Engraving, 73 x 53 cm. Osher Collection.


John Wallis. The United States of America Laid down from the Best Authorities (London, 1783). Engraving, 49 x 58 cm. Osher Collection.


Mathew Carey. Map of the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1814). Engraving, 38 x 46 cm. Osher Collection.

The Louisiana Purchase (1803) pushed the young country past its old western limit, the Mississippi River, and gave rise to maps that hinted at the country’s westward extension. There was one attempt in 1833 to turn this unstable frame into a national symbol with the superimposition of an eagle onto the body of the country.


Isaac Moore. The Eagle Map of the United States (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1833). Engraving, 38 x 48 cm. Osher Collection.


John Melish. United States of America (Philadelphia, 1821). Engraving, 44 x 54 cm. Osher Collection.

The country’s territorial growth was often mapped during the nineteenth century, reinforcing how unstable was the country’s geographical outline.


Jean Alexandre C. Buchon. Carte de l’adjonction progressive des divers états au territoire et a l’union constitutionnelle des Etats-Unis de l’Amerique du Nord (Paris, 1828). 39 x 64 cm. Osher Collection.


George Cram. Map Showing the Territorial Growth of the United States, 1776-1887. From: Cram’s Universal Atlas of the World (Philadelphia, ca. 1888). Lithograph, 26 x 33 cm. OML Collections.

The modern outline of the continental United States of America was almost reached by 1850; the Gadsden Purchase (1853) finalized the modern limits of the “Lower 48.” This outline became very familiar over the rest of the nineteenth century through its repetition in all manner of atlas and wall maps.

But this did not meant that the country’s outline was understood to be stable. First, the divisive issue of slavery and the Civil War threatened the country’s unity, as documented in the Boston Public Library's exhibition Torn in Two. After the war, even with the restoration of territorial unity, there remained the sense that the country would still grow: who was to say that the U.S.A. would not, in time, engross parts of Canada and Mexico? Only the new international system developed after World War I (1914-1918) stabilized U.S. continental boundaries; Americans then adopted as stable ~ and iconic ~ the already familiar outline.


J. H. Young. A New Map of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Cowperthwait, DeSilver & Butler, 1850). Lithograph, 42 x 65 cm. Osher Collection.