This website is part of The New York Public Library's Online Exhibition Archive. For current classes, programs, and exhibitions, please visit
American Shores Maps of the Middle Atlantic Region to 1850 The New York Public Library
Map Collection
Overview Basics of Maps Maps Through History Geographical Areas

A Note on the History of Cartography

Maps are among the oldest of the graphic arts. They may have evolved originally from cave art illustrating hunting grounds and holy sites. The early Babylonians produced maps on clay, and the ancient Egyptians created property maps of the Nile's annually flooded fields.

America’s appearance at the western reaches of the Atlantic in the 15th century shocked "old world" observers, as America did not fit into either biblical or Classical geography. Leaving aside the question of who "discovered" the place during the era of great explorations, the maps rolling off the printing presses of Europe after 1492 were a major source of information about America, as well as Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Maps efficiently presented images of truly wondrous but, for Europeans, unfamiliar lands.

As “old world” mapmakers brought their cartographic skills to this "new" world, they were able to translate these unfamiliar shores into recognizable places on maps and charts. Tools for exploration, exploitation, and empire, maps helped people half a world away to understand America as a place filling what had been a huge unknown expanse of “terra incognita.”

One thing to note when studying maps -- rarely are maps neutral. This was as true for the mapmakers describing extraordinary new worlds as it is for cartographers today. They must always make choices as to what to include or exclude -- because no small map can include all the detail at 1:1 to earth. Whatever choices are made, the map is skewed from reality. Politically maps can often be turned into propaganda, such as maps of greater Germany prior to World War II, or maps of Ecuador and Bolivia, which show each other’s shared border to one country’s advantage and the detriment of the other. Newspaper maps, often quite small, assume the power of the newspaper in which they appear, and sometimes reflect political bias. Road maps often delete mention of railroads and vice versa, perhaps misleading the traveler who needs information on each. Even something as simple as a neighborhood map of New York City will vary depending on whether the designer is from Queens, Harlem, Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, the Bronx, or Staten Island. Each will emphasize a different part of the city. None of these maps will be particularly wrong--just differentfrom the others. Not neutral.

For more on the history of maps, visit these two "history of cartography" web sites:

Map History
The History of Cartography Project