Sunday, May 16, 1993 Pacific Magazine

What Is It About Maps?

Terry McDermott

I HAVE A MAP THAT SHOWS nearly every commercial building and names the occupants in most of them, floor by floor, for large sections of central Tokyo. I have here in my desk other, less-ambitious city maps of Albuquerque, Anchorage, Beijing, Bangkok, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Moses Lake, Portland, Pullman, two San Franciscos, Santa Fe, Shanghai, Seoul, Spokane and Walla Walla.

I have combination maps of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland, and the Quad Cities of Davenport, Rock Island, Moline and Bettendorf. I have state highway maps of Hawaii, New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, Oklahoma, Kansas, Ohio and two maps of Alaska, one – for reasons I no longer remember – in German.

I also have a map of the Pearl River Delta in southern China, maps of the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republics of China and Vietnam. I have maps of the legislative districts of Washington, the fishing zones of the South Pacific, radiation dispersion in Nagasaki and hog densities in Iowa.

That’s in my desk.

On it, I have a road map of the state of Washington, another of the city of Seattle, a building-by-building map of the University of Washington campus, and a map of Puget Sound ferry routes.

On a bookshelf next to my desk, I have a world atlas, a state of Washington atlas that displays such things as timber and mineral reserves by county, a map of golf courses in Northern California, a bicycle mapbook of Seattle, telephone directories with ZIP and area-code maps, and a guide book with maps of every country and large city in East Asia.

Atop a file cabinet next to the desk I have a set of Seattle plat maps. I have a map I made myself showing who has owned every piece of property since the city was settled in a six-block area in the middle of town. I have census tract maps of the Puget Sound region and a housing deficiency map of the Yesler-Atlantic neighborhood.

I have 18 maps in the trunk of my car and a 144-page book of local street maps in the back seat.

In my computer, I have two more atlases, one of the United States, another of the world. The world atlas allows me to select a map of a particular country and, by merely pointing and clicking a couple of buttons, find out such things as the number of telephones in Brunei (168 per 1,000 people) and the average annual sugar-beet crop in Algeria (117,000 metric tons). At home, I have a map of the sky. In my basement I have a box full of papers, many of them maps or full of references to maps, the remnants of a lawsuit brought by a former neighbor. At the heart of the lawsuit was an interpretation of what the maps said, over who owned some land.

The map said it was mine. The neighbor said it was hers. The map was wrong.

I do not consciously collect maps, but as you can tell, I have a hard time throwing them away. They accumulate around me. I’m not all that unusual in this respect.

Rand McNally, the largest commercial map publisher in the world, recently surveyed people buying Rand McNally road atlases. They found out that most the people buying the atlases already had at least one other road atlas at home. Who knows why they felt the need for another, says Jerry Jones, manager of specialized services for Rand McNally.

Jones says there are people who will come into a map store and ask simply, “What have you got that’s new?”

It used to embarrass him, he says, to tell such people that the only thing that had come in lately was, say, a new street map of Cleveland.

It didn’t matter.

“Oh, my, you’ve got a nice Cleveland,” they’d say. “That’s a good-looking Cleveland. Do you have Columbus?”

“Who knows?” Jones says.

People who like maps like maps. I have no Clevelands. The maps I do have are diverse in quality and utility, but they have at least one thing in common. People seldom notice them, or if they do, they never mention it.

We live, as one writer recently put it, in a map-immersed world. Maps are ubiquitous, but unremarkable. They are background noise, ambient information.

Several weeks ago I laid four maps made by Raven Maps and Images, a tiny company in Oregon, on top of an empty desk near mine. I do not sit in a high-traffic area of the office I work in, but I spent most of the rest of the week in unsolicited conversation with a steady stream of people about these maps.

“What’s that?” people would say, looking at a particular feature on a topographical map of the United States. “Is that Green Lake?”

“What’s this?” they’d ask, looking at what appear to be mountains in the middle of the United States, where many people supposed there shouldn’t be any.

Although this topographic map has no cities on it, people invariably would look and find places they had lived or visited and point them out. If they were from California, they often would look at the immense flat plain in the middle of their state and say with some sense of discovery, “So that’s where the central valley is.”

And, finally, many of the people would say: “Where did you get these maps?”


PEOPLE HAVE BEEN MAKING maps almost as long as there have been people. References to maps have been found as early as the seventh century B.C., and there is reason to think they predate even that. The U.S. government alone has produced more than 250,000 maps, not copies, but distinctive individual maps. In a normal year, the government will sell more than 161 million copies of these.

The American Automobile Association distributes 55 million maps a year. Rand McNally sells 8 million atlases a year and more than 400 million total maps. Its road atlas has been on The New York Times’ paperback bestseller list every year for the past two decades.

More than a billion maps are printed every year. Some of these maps are quite useful. Some are nearly the opposite. Many are like the maps in my desk. They are invisible.

Raven Maps and Images was founded in Medford, Ore., in 1987 after Michael Beard, a cigarette salesman for Phillip Morris, met Stuart Allan, an artist-turned-cartographer, at a baby shower. Allan wanted to make beautiful maps. Beard wanted to sell them.

To get off the ground, Beard gathered three maps that Allan’s company, Allan Cartography, had made as calendar decorations – one of Hawaii from the point of view of a blue whale, one of Mount St. Helens before and after the blast, and a third of the San Francisco Bay area.

Beard took the maps with him on his cigarette circuit. He would pin them up on university bulletin boards with an address and telephone number while he went off to sell tobacco. Amazingly, the phone started ringing. The maps, which were in many ways novelties, sold themselves.

Beard was convinced there could be a market for a type of map Allan had been thinking about for years, large-scale topographic maps of each of the 50 states. They would be what are known in the cartography business as elevation-tinted, shaded, relief maps. They would be big, up to 4 feet by 6 feet. They would not fold or fit in a glove box.

They would hang on walls. They would jump at you from across the room.

What distinguishes Raven’s maps? There are plenty of topographic maps in the world and have been for centuries. They evolved into their modern form from maps made for Napoleon’s artillery brigades. Artillery commanders needed to know distances and elevations of terrain. Topographic maps gave it to them.

The color schemes Raven uses aren’t new, either. What distinguishes the maps, quite simply, is that they are beautiful.

One map in particular, called “Landforms and Drainage of the 48 States,” is perhaps the most beautiful map ever made. It is the only non-color map Raven sells, a 37-inch-by-58-inch black-and-gray map of the contiguous United States. No cities, in fact, no political units of any kind, are named on it.

It shows, as its title states, landforms and drainage, not the sort of thing that normally enthralls. But despite its subject and its scale (1 inch equals 55 miles), the level of detail on the map – in other words, the amount of information – is astonishing.

“The quality of a map is defined by its clarity and ease of reading,” Allan says.

The relief is so sharp and the detail so great on the Landforms map that people often mistake it for a photograph.

On it, the West is alive with land rising and falling, rivers gathering and tumbling. Basins are bathtubs, filled with water and what grows with it. The Rockies look like a wall forbidding passage. Is it any wonder the politics of the West are different? It looks like a separate country.

The more sedate rest of the nation is awakened on the map. The Arkansas River is suddenly significant. That batch of Midwestern mountains no one knew was there – the Ozarks – arises. The bayou country is wet and flat.

I come from a tiny Iowa town of no physical distinction. I can find the exact location of this town on the Landforms map merely by tracing the Maquoketa River up to my home valley.

In the east, the scraping of the great glaciers looks as if it had happened just yesterday.

The map has such a strong, three-dimensional quality that even after being around it for weeks, I still have the urge to touch it, to feel the texture, which of course it doesn’t have.

It’s an illusion.

Raven sells an overwhelming majority of its maps through mail order. The company sends catalogs all over the world to anybody who asks for one and tens of thousands of people who don’t.

Every couple of months a buyer will return a map, saying it wasn’t what he expected. The map, the buyer will complain, isn’t bumpy the way it looked in the catalog.


RAVEN’S MAIN BUSINESS is selling the individual state maps Allan had originally envisioned. The state maps take on average 1,200 hours each to produce. Some – those with steep relief and lots of it – take longer. Since Raven was founded in 1987, 27 states have been completed, including all the Western states. The whole country will be finished sometime before the end of the century.

Allan and Beard went into debt to finance the first eight states. The company had almost no revenue and was doing eight of these things that no one had ever done, and for which there was no certain market, all at once. This made for some tense days, said Lawrence Andreas, the production foreman at Allan Cartography.

“No one knew if there was a market for it. Not very many people worked this big,” Andreas said.

Maps are not drawn; they are built, Allan has written. The great modern revolution in mapmaking – digitization – has yet to arrive at Raven, except for use in the production of a couple of novelty maps. Computers can’t do the work, the imagining, that Stuart Allan wants in his maps.

The process, instead, is incredibly low-tech and laborious, involving weeks of hand-etching contour lines on photo-sensitive films and carefully shading the relief features with pencils. Dyes are washed over the films in a search for the correct coloring. The California map alone has 23 separate color combinations. Washington has 14.

In the beginning, the small crew of cartographers and technicians worked extraordinarily long hours for not much more than a promise. Detail was tacked upon detail, sheet upon sheet, until the composite – the maps – began to emerge. When the maps did start to take shape, to become what Allan had envisioned, the cartographers were rewarded.

“Gosh, these are beautiful,” Andreas remembers thinking. “Stuart had the idea from the start. He was right, and damn, we did it.”


YOU MIGHT THINK THAT by 1987 every sort of map that could have been made would have been made. Aside from the need to update maps as countries come together or apart, how could there possibly be new maps?

The answer lies in the nature of maps, which are not, as we often suppose, neutral objects.

Why are people still writing books? Because not every story has been told. Mapmaking is the same. It’s not a job that can ever be finished. It is not just the Earth that is being mapped, but the mapmaker’s conception of it. Stuart Allan’s conception of the Earth is unique.

Will Tefft of Map Link, a California-based map wholesaler, says without qualification, “Allan Cartography is the best cartographic production company on the continent right now. … When you’re dealing with a graphic image, there’s an artistry to it. That’s Allan Cartography. They have the eye. A lot of companies try it and they don’t have the eye. It’s art.”

“There have been plenty of gifted cartographers who spend their whole lives unable to make beautiful maps and wanting to,” Allan says. “They rarely get to do it right. Cartography is very expensive because it’s very labor-intensive and there’s no way to push it faster.”

To Allan, the most amazing thing about Raven is not the maps, which he finds endlessly fascinating, but the fact they are selling by the thousands, which he finds inexplicable. Last year, Raven sold 49,000 maps. The author John McPhee has used Raven maps on the covers of two of his books. Allan says the most significant reason behind the company’s success is its 800 number.

Raven hit the market just as a revolution was under way in the American commercial map industry. In 1985 there were probably only a dozen map stores in the entire United States, says Tefft. There are now hundreds of specialty-map stores and thousands of other places where maps are sold.

Mapping was to again become a full-scale creative enterprise. For decades the industry had been dominated by – indeed, was nearly the exclusive preserve of – oil companies. Nearly all the maps that anyone had were road maps.

In the early part of the 20th century, as oil companies began searching for ways to entice people to use their products, they hit upon the idea of using road maps as advertisements. By the 1960s the free road map was a staple of almost every gas station in the country.

When you thought of maps, you did not think of something to go on the wall but something to go on your lap.

“What most people knew about maps was you used to get them for free and you’d use them, clean your dipstick with them and throw them away,” says Michael Beard.

The free road maps might have kept drivers from getting lost, but they virtually destroyed creative commercial cartography in the United States. Then came the oil shocks of the 1970s. Using less petroleum rather than more became the new ideal. Oil companies began cutting back on advertising. The maps began to disappear. They then started to reappear, but this time with price tags on them.

By 1985, the free road map was an historical icon. Map publishers, who had been selling millions of maps to the oil companies for decades, had to think of new ways to sell their products. New forms of marketing had to evolve; so did new markets.

“Initially, we thought the market would be academic cartographers,” Beard says. “It turned out to be UPS drivers.” Beard describes drivers making deliveries or pickups and lingering over the maps, eventually becoming customers.


GERARDUS MERCATOR, THE man who devised what was for hundreds of years the standard projection system for two-dimensional maps, created one of the first atlases. He called his atlas “cosmographical meditations,” which indicates Mercator understood the subjective nature of mapmaking.

Maps are biased. They have opinions, or at least reflect the opinions of their authors. They often involve small fictions.

Many maps, for example, have on them things that often don’t actually exist on the ground – borders between states or countries. Even the land masses themselves are altered to fit maps by the choice of projection method.

Denis Wood, author of “The Power of Maps,” writes: “There is nothing natural about a map. It is a cultural artifact, a cumulation of choices made among choices every one of which reveals a value: not the world, but a slice of a piece of the world; not nature but a slant on it; not innocent but loaded with intentions and purposes; not directly but through a glass; not straight but mediated by words and other signs; not, in a word, as it is, but in … code.”

Think about it. If you were to make a map of your neighborhood, what would you put on it? Everything in the neighborhood? Your neighbor, Joe? The contents of his attic? No, that would be impossible. What you would put on the map would probably be closer to nothing than to everything. You would edit the neighborhood, deciding what was important enough to be on your map. This would require ranking what you wanted to portray. You might even decide to emphasize some things, to ensure they stand out.

What is most astonishing about Raven’s maps is the degree to which the announced intent of producing beauty also serves the purposes of revelation. What is revealed is not that the Earth is pretty. The map is pretty. What is revealed about the Earth are all these other things. Raven’s maps give you a way of seeing things, finding things you had overlooked before. They are the opposite of a road map. They don’t tell you how to get from here to there. They tell you where you are.

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