Norman Rice Memorial Lecture | The Social Life of Maps in Early America: Design, Technology, and Material Culture

University of Delaware professor, Martin Brückner, tells the story of American cartography during its formative decades following the Revolution. Exploring the social life of maps from production to consumption, this amply illustrated lecture examines the take-off phase of American map making, with particular emphasis on the ways in which economics, graphic design, and public education transformed maps into a formidable medium shaping everyday life in early America.

This lecture takes its cue from two national crises—the War of 1812 and the financial Panic of 1819—to examine the origins of American cartography and to showcase the popularity of maps in early American culture. Using the career of the Philadelphia mapmaker John Melish as a narrative thread, the talk delves into the politics, economics, and optics of American cartography between 1790 and 1860. Tapping source materials that range from bestselling national maps, newspapers and account books, to exhibition halls, school rooms, and eye-popping map designs, we will examine the rise of maps as popular artifacts that came in all shapes and sizes. Maps that started out as local rivalries between mapmakers during the War of 1812, quickly made headlines when cartographers not only challenged existing business models but the way in which maps were read and consumed. The fallout was profound: established mapmakers were quickly eclipsed by a new generation of cartographers—many being total novices in all things cartographic—who not only managed to launch national brands, but created high-impact designs and a publishing industry that left their mark in early American print culture, education and ideas of literacy, museum displays and other public spectacles.

This event is included with museum admission.

About Dr. Martin Brückner:

Martin Brückner is Professor in the English Department and currently serves as the Director of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. His teaching and research interests concentrate on American literature and history (C17 to C19); material culture studies; history of cartography; literary geography of the Atlantic World; print culture and the visual arts; and intellectual history. He earned his Ph.D. from Brandeis University and his M.A. from Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in his native Germany. He has served as Co-Director of both UD’s Center for Material Culture Studies and the Delaware Public Humanities Institute.

Professor Brückner is the author of two award-winning books, The Social Life of Maps in America, 1750-1860 (2017; Fred B. Kniffen Book Award) and The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (2006; Louis Gottschalk Book Prize). He is the editor of Early American Cartographies (2011) and co-editor of Modelwork: The Material Culture of Making and Knowing (2021; with Sandy Isenstadt and Sarah Wasserman); Elusive Archives: Material Culture Studies in Formation (2021; with Sandy Isenstadt); and American Literary Geographies: Spatial Practice and Cultural Production, 1500-1900 (2007; with Hsuan L. Hsu). His essays appear in American QuarterlyAmerican ArtAmerican Literary HistoryEnglish Literary HistoryWinterthur Portfolio, Open Cultural Studies, and XVII-XVIII: Revue de la Societe d’Etudes Anglo-Americaines, and in various scholarly collections. He prepared the exhibition Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience and contributed to exhibitions at the Library of Virginia and the Newberry Library. He has led workshops or seminars at Skidmore College, Lehigh University, the University of Kentucky, Universität Mainz, and together with Patricia Crain, at the American Antiquarian Society’s Summer Seminar in the History of the Book in American Culture.

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