VII. Undiscovered Treasures: School Geographies

It is understandable, given the manner in which the history of the United States is intimately bound up with the expansion and use of its territory, that geography was a central component of school education. To be effective citizens, children had to know about their country. As a result, geographical texts proliferated. At first sight, these books appear to comprise nothing more than lists of countries and states, of cities and towns, and of rivers and mountains. Until recently, cartographic connoisseurs considered those few school maps which showed new territories and boundaries to be “collectible.” The majority of school maps were understood to be small and lacking in detail, and were often cheap and crude in execution or mass-produced and industrial in nature.

But geography is really about the character of, and differences between, places and regions. So, even as nineteenth-century educators wrote what they thought were factual and objective accounts, they actually reflected contemporary world views and prejudices. These seemingly dry statements thus allow us access to the cultural and political ideals with which a large proportion of American children were inculcated. Most obviously, geography textbooks perpetuated the prevalent nineteenth-century racism that held “white-Caucasian civilization” to be inherently superior to “yellow-Asian barbarism” and “black-African savagery” (49, 50, 55). More subtly, the texts also manifested a variety of cultural conceptions of place, for example of picturesque, touristic New England (53, 56). The changes over time in America’s geographical conceptions can be traced through these books, until the closure of the frontier and the end of America’s overseas empire brought an end to this type of school geography after 1940.