John Fondersmith and His Collection


John Fondersmith March 2012

John Fondersmith at the "Geographic Center of the Nation" monument, Belle Fourche, South Dakota in June 2012.

The materials displayed in this exhibition represent only a small portion of the collection of cartographic ephemera ~ specifically images and objects that depict the continental shape of the United States of America — assembled by John Fondersmith over more than thirty years. John has always been fascinated by the ways in which the USA’s distinctive outline has been used as a logo for “Americanness” in a wide variety of contexts and forms. The collection continues to grow as John and his wife, Mary, acquire further items that they encounter on their travels, in their reading, and in their life generally.

John and Mary Fondersmith

John and Mary Fondersmith attended the unveiling of Iconic America at the annual general meeting of the Friends of the Osher Map Library on 13 September 2012. John's presentation to the Friends of the Osher Map Library was titled "Searching for Ushapia" and described the concept of ushapia and how his collection began and has grown.


John’s interest in maps was first stimulated by his father. Later, in his professional career, he worked with maps in some manner almost every day: after receiving his MS in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1963. After two years' service in the Peace Corps in Peru, he worked at Marcou, O'Leary and Associates, a planning consulting firm. Beginning in 1970, he worked for the Washington, D.C., planning office for 35 years, where his work focused on the revitalization of the downtown. This work led him also to collect architectural and urban guidebooks and to edit and publish a newsletter, American Urban Guidenotes: The Newsletter of Guidebooks  (1979 to 1987). Retirement in 2005 did no curtail John's interest in cities and especially in the development of Washington.

Beginning about 1980, he became interested in the symbolic use of the map shape of the United States, and he began to collect examples of the US map shape used in a symbolic sense. John is a charter member and former president of the Washington Map Society. The public debut of his collection was in a 1992 presentation to the society, which was printed in the Fall 1992 issue of the society’s journal, The Portolan. In 1990 he coined ushapia to describe the motif of the U.S. outline map by combining US and shape. He continues to collect examples of ushapia and to explore the increasing use of the US map shape as an American icon.

It is his sincere hope that Iconic America will spur further interest, discussion, and research on the symbolic use of the US map as logo. The “shape of the nation” is truly an important part of the American experience and the formation of a common American identity ~ once you start noticing them, you too will quickly realize just how ubiquitous and unremarked are these powerful symbols of “America.”