VI. Undiscovered Treasures: Public Geographies

Other aspects of the industrial revolution included a steady rise in the standard of living and an associated increase in the consumption of culture. Among the large and illustrated Bibles, prints by Currier and Ives, upright pianos, and ornate furnishings bought by the Victorians, we find many maps and atlases that presented knowledge for a “general purpose.” Without any specific uses, they provided repositories of knowledge that every proper household was expected to possess (35-38). Publishers also supplied an array of city plans (33), bird’s-eye views (34), county atlases (35), and state and general atlases (36, 37), which spoke to civic, communal, and national pride. These works emphasized the industrial and social development of each town or county, with smoke stacks and railroads competing for space with church spires and colleges.

It is worth comparing two atlases from a century apart. The large atlas from 1821 was an expensive luxury reserved for only the wealthiest families, serving as both an atlas and an encyclopedia (38). The even larger atlas from 1912 was similarly expensive, being intended for urban public libraries, but through the libraries it would reach a potentially vast audience (39). In the intervening century, geographical knowledge moved from a realm restricted by class to a realm restricted only by individual literacy.