Fifty or so fluffy white balls of smoke spiked with lightning bolts mark the sites of shootings and bombings in A Map of Chicago’s Gangland From Authentic Sources, a 1931 novelty item published for tourists that appears, along with 76 other maps, in the exhibit “Cartographic Treasures of the Newberry Library.” “Designed to Inculcate the Most Important Principles of Piety and Virtue in Young Persons and Graphically Portray the Evils and Sin of Large Cities,” the colorfully sarcastic map covers an area from Waveland to 69th Street and from Lake Michigan inland to “Capone Territory” in Cicero. Notable sites include a “hijacking of giggle water” at Cicero and Garfield and the slaying of Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle in the Illinois Central tunnel at Randolph and Michigan. A nonsensical scale measures distance by body count–one shooting, one murder, double murder, and massacre–and a “Gangland Dictionary” defines “typewriter” as a machine gun and “pineapple” as a bomb.

Newberry curators Robert Karrow and James Akerman put the exhibit together, culling it from the library’s collection of over 300,000 maps. Karrow has long been curious about the history of signs and symbols on maps. He devoted a chapter of his Loyola doctoral thesis in history, “Intellectual Foundations of the Cartographic Revolution,” to map semiotics of the early 15th century, when mapmaking blossomed thanks in part to the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s system of latitude and longitude, advances in number theory, and the rising popularity of painting landscapes in perspective. He coined the term “grapho-topemes” to classify centuries-old traditions such as the use of bump-shaped icons for hills and wavelike stippling to signify water. “Is it true that if you make a little bump, everybody in the world will say that’s a hill or that’s a mountain?” he asks. “It’s a remarkably uniform story since old maps from the Far East have little bumps too.”

Karrow, the son of a traveling salesman, grew up in Hartland, Wisconsin, where he collected state highway maps along with comic books. “I could take a road map and spend hours imagining myself going places. And still do,” he says. He drew maps illustrating the adventures of his favorite book character, Freddy the Pig, and recruited his kid sister to hold the rod as he played surveyor. “I like to think I’m not a map nut,” he says, and admits that, “to my great shame, I’m a terrible topographer.” Despite his youthful study of the Boy Scout merit badge booklet on surveying, his annual hikes as an adult have been marred by lost trails and dead ends: “On every trip I’ve gotten more or less lost.”

He knows his way around an archive better than an arroyo. On the library staff since 1971, he’s previously assembled an exhibit on polar maps and authored the 1993 book Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century and Their Maps. He’s entranced by the graphic design of maps, singling out one depicting the United States at night, in which black and white are reversed. “You can’t picture black dots on white paper as anything in the real world, but if you’re flying in an airplane at night, the white dots of light on a black background below you can see as representing places or people or life.”

Karrow will give a talk titled “The Language of Maps” on Thursday, January 17, at 5:30 at the library, 60 W. Walton, where “Cartographic Treasures” continues through January 19. The lecture’s cosponsored by the Chicago Map Society, and admission is $10, beverages included. Gallery hours are 8:15 to 5:30 Monday, Friday, and Saturday and 8:15 to 7:30 Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. For more information, call 312-255-3700.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.