Topic Ideas

Throughout history, individuals and groups have used maps to communicate and visualize a range of themes. On a basic level, maps show you the world beyond what your eyes can see. But maps also incorporate the viewpoint of the person or group that made them. You can analyze a map to examine how a culture or community thinks about itself, how it views other people, or how others view it.

For any topic you choose, maps can serve as rich primary sources, and there are many ways you could incorporate them into your project. Below you will find some examples of how you could use or talk about maps in your project. These are exercises to get you thinking about these documents in new ways.

A great way to spur your own ideas is to browse through maps. Which ones grab your attention? You can start by visiting our related site Enter some key terms in the search bar, like the name of a country, city, or other places that interest you, such as a national park or lake. Also try names of wars or battles as well as themes, like immigration, slavery, or railroads. There are maps for everything.

Compare a selection of maps from one place.

Find maps that highlight different aspects of a single city, state, or other place you find interesting. Perhaps they come from different time periods and show a change over time. Ask yourself, what do these maps communicate about this place? Who made the map? How do the maps differ in the way they represent a place? What is being emphasized? What is being ignored?

As a quick example, let's compare three maps of New York City (click on each to open a zoomable window).

A Chart of New York Harbour with the Banks Soundings and Sailing marks from the most accurate Surveys & Observations . .

Can you find the City of New York in this first map from 1783? It’s the red, dotted area on the tip of the island. It's completely dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. What an interesting decision, to make the city so small and the landscape so big. What is this map communicating? The importance of New York's location.

New York City is nestled within a system of deep waterways and surrounded by the two arms of the East and Hudson Rivers. This waterscape connected New York to a global trade economy that fueled its growth. This map is all about New York as a city set within a great and deep natural harbor.

Topographical Map Of The City and County Of New - York, and the adjacent Country: With Views in the border of the principal Buildings and interesting Scenery of the Island. Published By J.H. Colton & Co. No. 4 Spruce St. New-York. 1836. Engraved & Printed by S. Stiles & Company, New-York. Entered ... 1836, by J.H. Colton & Co. ... New York
1836 and 1836.

Now look at this map from 1836. The shaded parts on the tip of the island (to the left) show you the built-up portion of the city, but look at how the streets extend beyond the dense city all the way up the island, pushing without care through hills, trees, and other natural features. (You will need to click on the map to see these details.) It’s a map that claims to show you the future of the city and New York's destiny to take over the entire island. Imagine a map of your own hometown drawn with roads extending into neighboring lands. What confidence in the future is displayed here (or will it turn out to be hubris?!).

Commercial Atlas of America. Rand McNally Standard Map of Manhattan and
            Business Districts of Bronx, Brooklyn and Jersey City. (with) Greater New

And finally there's this 1924 map that was printed in Rand McNally and Company’s Commercial Atlas of America. We see that the the city has realized its promise and has grown to cover the entire island and surrounding lands (so it was well-placed confidence!). With subway, railway, and ferry lines coming in and out of the island like veins, this map is about New York as the hub and engine of a large, dynamic region.

Examine how maps help create and communicate national identities.

Close your eyes and picture the United States.

Did you picture something that looks like this?

Because of maps, we all know the shape of our country. The map functions like a national symbol, as much as the flag or the eagle.

Because of maps, we envision ourselves as a people with a clear border and with the government's power evenly distributed within it. This is a phenomenon that developed only within the last 300 years, as national governments and rulers took on grand mapping projects to visualize their countries' shape, size, and resources. Ancient Romans, for example, had no idea what shape their empire had.

Groups and governments can also use maps to communicate a particular idea about their country or place. In some ways, maps can function a bit like advertisements, and it may help to analyze them as such.

For example, what are Alaskans communicating when they print this map on t-shirts?

Aw, isn't Texas cute?!

Let's examine a map in more depth. What does this 1858 map communicate about Mexico?

This map is part of a larger atlas of Mexico. How do we know this? Well, you can see from the image that the map is bound in a larger book, but if you look at the catalog record, you can find useful information, including the fact that it was part of the Atlas Geografico, Estadistico e Historico de la Republica Mexicana [Geographic, State, and Historic Atlas of the Republic of Mexico] and made by Antonio Garcias Cubas.

This particular page focuses on the geographic features of Mexico, especially the borders of the states, each outlined in a different color. Zoom in, and you can also see rivers, mountains, lakes, and major roads and cities. On the bottom left corner, charts compare the lengths of Mexico's longest rivers and the heights of its prominent mountains.

To us, this may just look like a standard map, but undertaking a mapping project of this scale (just look at the other pages of this atlas!) in the 1850s would have required tremendous resources and organization. By producing this national map and atlas, Mexico is asserting its identity as a modern nation-state, capable of executing a massive survey project.

Doing some historical research can help us better understand the purpose and use of the map. In this time period, creating the image of a modern nation would have been important to Mexico. Mexico was a new country, having gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and it had recently lost almost half its territory to the United States in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After such a period of instability, it would have been crucial to communicate the image of a strong nation and of a cohesive geographical entity.

The map's creator, Antonio Garcia Cubas, goes further in creating Mexico's national identity. On the top left corner, he includes an engraving of a landscape, made up of different parts of the country. On the top right, he includes different archaeological ruins of Mexico's great indigenous civilizations. In this way, Cubas extends the history of Mexico, a country that had only existed for a few decades, back centuries, or millennia, to its indigenous roots. The map creates the image of a nation with a deep history and attachment to the land.

There is one more interesting detail. In 1884, mapmakers adopted the convention of running the prime meridian through Greenwich, England. If you look at the lines of longitude on this map, however, the prime meridian runs through Mexico City. Perhaps there is no better way to simultaneously claim your independence from Europe and your centrality to the world.

Use maps to investigate the relationship between geography and history.

There is truth to the idea that "geography is destiny," that geographical features—such as mountain ranges, bodies of water, or the fertility of soil—have determined the growth and development of societies and shaped the exchange of goods and ideas. Geography can help explain the paths of trade routes, the locations of settlements, and the rise and fall of empires.

Why did New York City eclipse Philadelphia to become the center of economic power of the United States? In large part because of its superior natural port (as seen on the 1783 map of New York City above).

Maps are great tools for understanding the role geography has played in human history. For quick examples, let's examine the maps below.

First, look at this 1842 map of Egypt.

☢︎ Warning! The map is in German, but don't look away. Because maps are visual documents, you can often get the information you need even if you don't understand the language. Even better: You can use a translation website (like this one) to translate the words you need. ☢︎

Zoom into the map and examine how the Nile River, a watercourse in the middle of a desert, has directed human settlement in Egypt. (The Nile extends vertically down the map's central green area.) See if you can find Cairo, the capital. Why do you think the capital is located there, and not on the coast or someplace else?

Now let's look at two maps of Bolivia in South America. The map to the right shows Bolivia (and Peru) in 1851. Zoom in and look at Bolivia's coastline, which encompasses part of the Atacama Desert (the driest place on earth!). A small tail of territory reaches southwest and provides Bolivia with access to the Pacific.

Bolivia's territory changed significantly after the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), when the country lost its coastal land to Chile. Bolivia became a landlocked country. You can see the new borders, which remain today, in this 1886 map.

Having no access to the sea significantly hampered Bolivia's economic development in the next century. Without a national coast or ports, Bolivia lost direct access to world trade routes. Modern Bolivia has struggled to export its goods, and its economy has been defined by underdevelopment. Bolivia's 20th-century history would have been quite different if the country had maintained its original geography and coastline.