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Children’s Maps

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Map of the United States. Frances P. Gilman. Manuscript: 1838
This outline color map of the U.S. drawn by a child was probably copied from the 1838 edition of Olney's School Atlas.
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Map of the United States. Eliza S. Ordway. Manuscript: 1829
The date is approximate, estimated by noted children’s map collector Howard Welsh, from whose collection this map came. It was probably created as a school project.
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Map of the World. Anna M. Bullard. Manuscript: 1836
This well executed, hand-drawn view of the World in hemispheres was likely produced as a school exercise and then preserved as a wall map.
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Locations and Wanderings of The Aboriginal Tribes… The Direction of their Wanderings, in A Series of Maps to Willard's History of the United States, Or, Republic of America. Designed for Schools and Private Libraries. Emma Willard. New York: 1829
This map shows the locations and movements of the various Indian tribes that inhabited the eastern United States in the period before extensive European settlement.
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[World map], in A General Atlas Done by Frances Bowen Under the Care of Her Sister Eliza in the year 1810. Frances Bowen. Manuscript: 1810
This world map is part of as group of 37 manuscript maps of the world produced by Frances Bowen as part of a geographical exercise. The result is very fine – these are some of the most delicate and well executed children's maps we have seen.
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Chart of the Inhabited World . . ., in School Atlas to Accompany Woodbridge's Rudiments of Geography. Atlas on a New Plan . . . William C. Hartford. Woodbridge, 1824
This chart shows the “prevailing religions, form of government, degree of civilization, and population of all the countries of the world,” using distinctive graphics to convey this data.

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Asia. Copied from Wilkinson's General Atlas, in Practical Geography; In a Series of Exercises, Illustrative of the Geography of All the Countries in the Civilized World.  Miss Cleobury and Robert Wilkinson.  Nottingham: 1815

This atlas is meant as an outline school atlas to accompany Wilkinson's General Atlas. The author states: "that published by Mr. Wilkinson...has been selected as the accompanying work, with which the author has drawn her outlines to correspond..."


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North America. Bradford Scott. Manuscript: 1816
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South America. Bradford Scott. Manuscript: 1816
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United States of America. Bradford Scott. Manuscript: 1816

We assume that Bradford Scott was a student and that he drew these maps for school. The maps are somewhat crude and ebullient in a boyish way, very different from the concise and neat appearance of the maps that typically were drawn by girls, such as Frances Bowen.


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Map of North America. Jessie E. Williamson. Manuscript: 1850
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Map of South America. Jessie E. Williamson. Manuscript: 1850

Both of these student maps are full of detail and were diligently copied from maps that reflect the state of geography for North and South America in the late 1840s.


From the 1790s to the 1830s, young women drew, painted, and stitched maps as part of their education. Some were copied and traced, while others were done freehand, using only the grid of longitude and latitude to guide their efforts. Some were designed to serve the geography curriculum, while others were intended to showcase penmanship, artistry, and the cultivation of self-discipline. And while some reflect care and precision—with carefully composed borders and river systems—others bear the marks of more artistic freedom, or perhaps the lapsing attention of a distracted student. Even the rudimentary examples involved hours of effort. From South Carolina to Maine, Maryland to Mississippi, the practice of map drawing constitutes a significant if relatively unexplored phase in the history of education, cartography, and American visual culture.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, formal education was limited and teachers had few resources. Yet geography was fundamental to the curriculum. Many students learned the subject through the ubiquitous texts of Jedidiah Morse, whose Geography Made Easy remained in print for decades after its initial publication in 1784. The War of 1812 stimulated an appetite for national maps, which was partly met by a host of new school atlases published by Mathew Carey, Jacob Cummings, Daniel Adams, and Joseph Worcester. This heightened attention to school geography also motivated Morse and his son—Sidney Edwards Morse—to launch a new and more comprehensive school atlas of their own, A New Universal Atlas of the World in 1823. At the same time, William Woodbridge and Emma Willard began to publish a series of atlases and geography textbooks that incorporated the techniques of comparative geography introduced by Alexander von Humboldt.

Willard, Woodbridge, and Joseph Worcester all had experience teaching in female academies, which widely assigned the practice of creating maps as part of their education. “Working” maps onto silk, linen, or wool through embroidery was a way to practice not only the “ornamental” arts, but also to learn geography. Most commonly, these schoolgirls made maps of their own country or of the world in hemispheres. In fact, needlework maps were so popular in Britain by the 1780s that designs for the same were commercially printed. The practice of sewing and drawing maps crossed the Atlantic in the late eighteenth century, though most surviving examples date from 1800 to the 1830s, undertaken primarily by girls aged 11 to 18 who were enrolled in the many small academies throughout the US that flourished from the 1790s to the eve of the Civil War. These highly precise and laborious documents were not really an exercise in mapmaking as much as other skills: requiring hours and months of dedication, they were a means of learning penmanship, geography, coloration, placement, and discipline. Perhaps the most powerful motive was of “map study” was to inculcate national identity in the decades after independence, and in fact the most common of these projects were maps not of one’s locality, home state, or region, but rather of the entire nation and often the world. By drawing the distant reaches of a country that most would never see firsthand, these students were learning—and even creating—a national identity that was itself a recent and fragile invention.

The popularity of map drawing and map creation in American schools reflects the expanded female access to education in the early nineteenth century. Maps and geography fit into this expanding curriculum nicely, as appropriate scientific subject matter for girls, a “useful” pathway to literacy, and a way to practice citizenship, while also still fulfilling the traditional requirements of appropriate feminine “accomplishments.” As John Pinkerton wrote in 1818 in the preface to his own atlas, “[Geography] is a study so universally instructive and pleasing that it has, for nearly a century, been taught even to females.” Joseph Emerson’s prospectus for a female seminary at Wethersfield, Connecticut, for instance, prioritized geography and map work. And for many young girls in the new republic, the ability to create a map of the nation and the world—through needlework, painting, or drawing—was a marker of what it meant to be educated. Sarah Pierce, founder of the Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut, stressed geography and map drawing as a way to strengthen “principles of association” and “readiness of memory.” Harriet Baker and Frances Henshaw drew elaborate and creative maps while students in the female academies of Vermont. These were essential to their course in penmanship, but also aided their memorization of place names, rivers, location, historical events, and other elements of geography and history. Some of these maps appear so controlled as to be tracings of published maps, while others reflect the student’s freedom to sketch gridlines and contours.

Yet the subjects of “geography” and “map study” did not always denote the same thing in the nineteenth century; often geography involved little reference to maps and instead focused primarily on description of land features or memorization of facts related to places and nations. Why map drawing was more commonly taught to girls than boys in this era remains somewhat mysterious: while boys routinely learned surveying out of doors, girls could spend hours painstakingly copying or creating maps, which overlapped with their more general education in art, needlework, and even performance. Catherine Beecher, founder of the Hartford Female Academy, recalled how central “map-drawing” was to her education and the corpus of female “accomplishments.” Many young girls exposed to map work in British and American academies went on to become teachers themselves, and carried these practices with them into an ever-growing network of education around the nation. The practice seems to have declined by the 1840s, perhaps because of the sheer availability of inexpensive wall maps, atlases, and other cartographic materials that flooded the market.

—Susan Schulten

Professor of History, University of Denver