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Elements of Cartography


Americae sive novi orbis, nova descriptio., Digital ID 465007, New York Public LibraryThe title of this post comes from an important textbook that every formally trained student of cartography will recognize. Arthur Robinson (1915-2004), a towering figure in the world of cartography and geography, first published Elements of Cartography in 1953. Now in it sixth edition, Elements remains an essential teaching tool in both cartographic literacy and the basics of mapmaking.

In Elements, the reader is reminded that every map should have a set of common features (elements) aside from the geographic information that delineate the landscape.

And while the book is about making new maps, the elements of cartography, as they are etched, engraved, printed, hand-colored, cataloged, digitized and presented on old maps in our Digital Gallery, and in our new web map toolkit, and outlined and illustrated below, can be a source of enormous inspiration, stirring the creative juices of not only cartographers, but visual artists, designers, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and more...

Dive in further at the Library's Map Division.

Compass Rose

The compass rose tells us which way is north (not all maps orient north at top as with the image below from the Map of New England Captain John Smith's 1627 The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles ... 


The scalebar tells us what a given unit of measurement (inch, cm etc...) indicates when applied to the map (miles, km, etc...) The scalebar on the map below, Lord Baltimore's 1635 Noua Terrae-Mariae tabula, indicates its map units as "Sea Leagues".  

Representative Fraction

The representative fraction, e.g. 1/62,500 tells us that one unit (any unit) of measurement equals, in this example, 62,500 of that same unit on the planet earth. The map below, titled Mount Marcy, was first published by the U.S. Geological Survey sometime in the 1880's and reprinted in 1912. This map is a quadrangle map, indicating it covers 1/4 of a degree on the planet earth. 


The cartouche frames out a titleblock and publisher’s information and often contain really interesting expositions related to the publication of the map, complete with the appropriate genuflecting to a king or God. The cartouche below is from John Speed's America with those known parts in that unknowne worlde... published in 1627. The scrolly shape in this example gives an indication of origins of the word cartouche, which is French for cartridge, as in bullet. Before the invention of metal or plastic casings, the cartridge was made a rolled paper package fulled with gunpowder and lead shot. Apparently, the scrolls looked like cartouches, hence the name.


The neatline frames the area of geographic coverage on the map (in this case Virginia) and is sometimes coupled with a grid that is keyed either to an index or to the graticule (lines of latitude and longitude). In the cartouche tucked up against the neatline below, naked baby angels called "puttis" hold aloft a curtain with the title Nova Virginiae Tabula on this 1671 map, originally commissioned by John Smith.


The legend unpacks the meaning of the symbols used to depict different types of information on the map such as cities, mountains, roads etc... The legend below, from J.H. Young's New Jersey, published in 1839 indicates symbology for both the latest innovations transportation, from canals to railroads, to tried and true "common" and stage roads.


And finally, in addition to those standard cartographic elements, we have fun things appearing here an there, as if by magic, like sea dragons, and warring ships, angelic cartographers, historic and allegorical figures. These things allude, often in modern and self conscious fashion, to the makers of the maps, or the the wider geopolitical zeitgeist, and in some cases to the cosmographical order of things in the universe.

Homann, Regni Mexicani... 1759-1784:

John Speed's America...1671:

Again, John Speed's America... 1671:

Again, Homann, Regni Mexicani... 1759-1784:

Hondius, Virginiae item et Floridae Americae... 1636:

Ortelius, Americae sive novi orbis...1573:

Hopefully, you can draw some inspiration from these Elements of Cartography!


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Elements of Cartography Lord Baltimore's Map Date Wrong

Hello Matt, I enjoyed your blog post about maps. I would like to point out that your web page link about Lord Baltimore's map and text is referring to the wrong date for your version of the map. I believe your map is the circa 1671 version of the map, by John Ogliby, which is a near identical, but updated copy of the original published in Sept. 8, 1635 in "Relation of Maryland" pamphlet encouraging colonization. This second version of "Relation of Maryland" pamphlet is the first edition that includes a map. The original in 1634 did not contain a map. A digital scan of the 1635 map can be found in the Maryland Archives. The original map was engraved and signed "T. Cecill sculp.". This person is supposed to be Thomas Cecill II, the youngest son of Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter. The engraver is also the half nephew of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who helped the career of the 1st Baron of Baltimore, George Calvert. George Calvert named his son, the 2nd Baron of Baltimore, Cecilius, after the family name of the Cecil's. I currently have no definitive written proof of Thomas Cecill the engraver being one and the same as the son of the 1st Earl of Exeter. However, all of the circumstantial evidence of the engraver's other works, such as Elizabeth I, the jester of James I, Francis Bacon's last book, and of his alleged grandfather, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, where his signature is the same, but spelling out "Thomas" instead of "T." point to him being the prime candidate with access to those social circles. - David

SIgnature on Archibald

SIgnature on Archibald Armstrong, (jester of Charles I) is same as on Maryland map- T.Cecill sculp.

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