What gets mapped is what makes money for those who have money. And all the rest of it is a kind of technical handwaving. –Denis Wood, The Power of Maps

I have an excellent map of the Loop. On those rare occasions when I must drive downtown, it reminds me that Randolph is one-way westbound. It shows that State Street between Congress and Wacker is not really a street. It tells me where I can cut over from Lake Shore Drive to Michigan Avenue, and how to pilot out-of-town relatives from Union Station to North Pier.

But there’s one street I avoid, because it’s not on the map, even though it probably has more traffic than a downstate freeway. For those who are neither professional drivers nor amateur explorers, Lower Wacker Drive is terra incognita. A tourist coming up to the intersection at Wabash and Wacker must wonder, “Why are all those cars coming up out of the river?”

My map is not a window on the world–it’s not even a window on the Loop. As Mark Monmonier explains in his book How to Lie With Maps, it would be naive to expect otherwise. “A single map is but one of an indefinitely large number of maps that could be produced for the same situation or from the same data.” You could have a map of the Loop without Lower Wacker, or one with Lower Wacker included as a dotted line, or one that marked and named all the buildings, or one that highlighted pedways rather than streets, or . . .

To map is to choose, and there is no hard-and-fast rule about how to make those choices. A map without Lower Wacker isn’t wrong exactly–somebody just put easy legibility higher on this map’s agenda than showing subterranean streets.

Mapmakers’ choices can set traps for the unwary–especially provincial easterners. “A friend of mine from graduate school in Boston got his first job at the University of Missouri,” says John Long, editor of the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at the Newberry Library. “He and his wife like to take day trips. But his road-atlas map of Missouri was the same size as the map of Massachusetts. So when they set out for a destination ‘only’ an inch and a half away, they drove and drove and drove and drove.”

An inch and a half on Rand McNally’s Massachusetts map represents about 14 miles. On Missouri it represents 34. Long’s friends were paying the price of a hidden agenda item of road atlases. In theory atlas makers would find it easier to make detail maps by slicing the U.S. into regions of uniform size. Popular 19th-century Chicago map publisher George Cram did just this in his 1875 U.S. atlas–but the atlas didn’t sell. According to UIC historian Gerald Danzer, writing in the 1984 anthology Chicago Mapmakers, “The regional maps increased the coverage of the West, and seemed to diminish the status of the eastern states and, in general, detracted from the notion of state sovereignty.” So in later editions, he writes, “Each state’s boundaries were expected to fill out a large sheet.”

In the beginning nobody was shy about the agenda most Chicago maps had. “Land is the grand topic of conversation in the streets, hotels, and liquor saloons of Chicago,” commented one early visitor, quoted by Harold Mayer and Richard Wade in Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. “The columns of the newspapers are crowded with advertisements of ‘eligible lots,’ and the land agents suspend huge maps in their windows to attract the speculator.”

According to Danzer, the first published map of the city, in the early 1830s–“Chicago with the school section, Wabansia, and Kinzie’s addition”–was sponsored by John Kinzie “to help the sale of his lots.” An 1836 map depicted ten additions to the “original town.” It showed rectangular lots, carefully outlined and numbered, on numbered blocks fronted by named streets, many of them so far beyond the existing settlement–as far west as present-day Racine and as far south as 18th Street and the river–that it’s unlikely they represented much of anything on the ground.

Chicago was changing from an easygoing frontier trading post to the frenzied terminus of an important canal. Eastern speculators and locals alike wanted maps to show them what was for sale. But then came the panic of 1837. “As the market for real estate evaporated, so apparently did the demand for maps,” writes Danzer. “A decade would pass before another map of the entire city would be printed.”

The early 1890s were another boom time for promotional maps. An 1891 map published by the Harvey Land Association boosted that fledgling suburb as a “temperance manufacturing town” offering “city advantages without city taxation” and “over 60 passenger trains daily.” The mapmakers apparently superimposed a bright pink street grid labeled “Harvey” on an otherwise monochromatic map suspiciously similar to “Blanchard’s Guide Map of Chicago and Environs” published two years earlier. The original Blanchard had shown two disconnected subdivisions called “South Lawn.”

These old maps seem to have enhanced the truth a bit for commercial reasons. And some of today’s maps seem a bit off the mark as well. But the reason any particular map exists at all is to get something done, not to reproduce reality with perfect precision (as if that were possible). The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau’s 1991 Chicago Map and Guide, for instance, places Garfield Park and O’Hare outside the city, shows Ogden running through to North Avenue, and implies that the Ravenswood el ends at Lake Street. But this map’s agenda is to hit the high spots, encourage tourism, and stay within a budget. Most of those likely to be offended by the mistakes will never see it, and few who use it will be affected by them.

Any given map could of course be “better.” But a perfectly impartial map of Chicago–or of any place–doesn’t exist. Every map requires choices, choices imply an agenda, and–hereabouts at any rate–development remains king. For decades Rand McNally road maps of the city have shown Lake Calumet’s eastern shore indented by long rectangular boat slips. So did the maps in the city’s own Lake Calumet Airport Update published in the fall of 1990. They don’t exist, any more than the Lake Calumet airport does. But somebody once planned to build them.

Millions of copies of maps showing Lake Calumet developed have not made it so. But maps do shape our perceptions, sometimes without our knowing it. On the current Rand McNally road map Illinois looks like the visual proof of a geometric theorem. Blue, green, red, and gray lines connect black dots and orange blobs. There are no railroads. There are no hills or valleys. There’s not much between the roads except for a few rivers, rest areas, and state parks.

Hold the jokes, please. This emptiness is not dictated by the nature of our remarkably flat state. It’s the result of choices. State road maps were even bleaker early in the automotive era. When Rand McNally cartographers dared add county names and boundaries to their 1923 series of U.S. road maps, the company’s sales department objected–and succeeded in having the “unnecessary clutter” removed.

“In contrast, European road maps have evolved from–and little departed from–traditional topographic mapping,” writes James Akerman, assistant director of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library, in an article to be published in Imago Mundi. “The celebrated ‘Cartes Michelins,’ for example, feature an abundance of spot elevations, railroads, plans of the smallest villages and hamlets, trails, and off-road vistas while carefully indicating road widths, scenic routes, forests, open lands, and swamps.”

Europeans still believe in getting out of their cars and walking; Americans by and large believe in getting places. “Early auto road maps were relied upon to conquer the vast American space,” writes Akerman, “to invite transcontinental travel by car. American auto touring ever since has had less to do with travelling in the country than through it. The bold-line, sparsely detailed aesthetic of American road maps reflects this detachment from the countryside.” As Akerman has written elsewhere, “Map publishers did more than merely sell maps, they sold a landscape.”

As Denis Wood writes with fine irony in The Power of Maps, the very abundance of government-sponsored road maps itself bespeaks a definite agenda: “There is no injunction on the state to map its roads anymore than there is for it to map the locations of deaths attributable to motor vehicles, or the density of cancer-linked emissions from internal combustion engines, or the extent of noise pollution associated with automotive traffic. It would be satisfying to live in a state that produced 1.6 million copies of such maps and distributed them free of cost to travelers, tourists, immigrants and industrial location specialists, but states find it more expedient to publish maps of highways.”

Sometimes mapmakers’ agendas confuse us, sometimes they shape our thoughts, sometimes (when their agendas are the same as ours) we don’t notice them at all. And once in a while their agenda reshapes the world they’re mapping. “The received public opinion is that maps are there to show the way things are,” muses Akerman. “But the reason people map something is because they’re about to do something to it.” His most dramatic example is the story of Waukegan commercial artist and draftsman John Garrett Brink.

Over Christmas vacation in 1916 Brink began working on his idea of a new kind of road map for his client and soon-to-be employer Rand McNally. Twenty-one years earlier the Chicago Times-Herald had published the first map specifically designed to show auto routes. But would-be auto travelers still lacked one essential we now take completely for granted: there was no good way to tell which road was which.

The American Automobile Association did publish “blue books,” which contained mile-by-mile (sometimes almost yard-by-yard) verbal descriptions of selected trips. In 1914 the midwest volume alone ran to 969 pages, for reasons that become obvious if you read over the first trip, from Chicago to South Bend. Mile 14.5: “Just after going under two railroads turn left with one line of trolley on Indianapolis Avenue (poor macadam for over a mile).” Mile 16.7: “Five-corners, baseball park on far right, turn right with one line of trolley.” If you got lost and approached the five corners on the wrong road, you could have been out of luck.

Local and regional “highway associations” took up the cause of naming and marking particular routes, about 30 in all, including the famous Lincoln Highway (New York to San Francisco, now U.S. 30 in the midwest) and the Atlantic Highway (Maine to Florida, now U.S. 1). But even where such groups existed, the job of marking every crossroads often exceeded their resources. Their promotional maps looked good. Contemplating a cross-country trip in the early 1920s, Emily Post (By Motor to the Golden Gate) remarked to a friend that the journey couldn’t be difficult, because “the Lincoln Highway goes straight across.” He replied, “It’s an imaginary line like the equator.”

For his new series of maps Brink planned to assign a reference number to each route, tied to a key. (This helped keep the map uncrowded.) In addition, he proposed to sell local hotels and garages the right to have their names printed on the map. But these new “auto trails” maps would still be hard for Rand McNally to sell as long as the customer could not count on being able to find the routes. “Numerous main routes . . . remained unnamed or unmarked,” Brink wrote in a memoir now in the Rand McNally archives at the Newberry Library. “In this connection Mr. Erving instructed me to locate these routes and . . . prepare suitable names and drawings for [their] markers.”

If the world doesn’t fit the map, then change the world. Rand McNally decided to make the maps and guarantee the marking of the trails they displayed. A key link in the auto-industrial complex had been forged.

“A great number of these trails all over the United States were named by Rand McNally and Co.,” wrote Brink with the pride of a creator, “and the markers were designed to illustrate the name. . . . The markers or the stencils for a great many of the routes were manufactured by Rand McNally and Co. and consisted of either signs or printed emblems on the poles. The signs were made of heavy card board, designed, plates made, and printed by Rand McNally and Co., and afterwards processed by parafine to resist wear or destruction by the elements. Where the trails were blazed by painting the poles, a special material was manufactured of strong pliable material from which we cut stencils. Thousands of these were made as well as thousands of sheets sold to many State Highway Departments to be used for the same purpose.” Brink listed 38 company-designated trails, including the Liberty Way (Indianapolis-Logansport-Chicago), the Adeway (Indianapolis-Chicago), the Starved Rock Trail (Chicago-Starved Rock-Rock Island), and the Illinois Valley Way (Chicago-La Salle-Peoria).

Over the next six years Rand McNally named roads, designed markers, helped erect them, and then sold maps of the result, gradually expanding from Illinois to the midwest, northeast, and the whole United States. Brink supervised the making of both the maps and the landscape they depicted.

In the summer of 1918 the ubiquitous Mr. Erving “advised me in confidence that it was very necessary that [the Ohio-Indiana-Michigan Way from Kalamazoo to Cincinnati] be marked as soon as possible for the reason that numerous customers insisted . . . that their maps purchased from Rand McNally and Co. would [only thus] be of service to them.” So Brink spent his August 1918 vacation blazing the auto trail 180 miles from Kalamazoo, Michigan, south through Howe and Fort Wayne to Richmond, Indiana. He used nine days, 355 signs, and 22 pounds of tacks and apparently had a wonderful time. “Needless to say, a ride in which I took the greatest pride and satisfaction was back to Kalamazoo over the famous O.I.M. Way.” Three years later, with some help from the Jacksonville Auto Club, he did the same for a network of Florida roads, including the Tamiami Trail.

Meanwhile, states began replacing names with numbers (Rand McNally often printed signs for them too). In the middle 1920s the federal government considered following the states’ lead. The railroads and many highway associations objected on grounds of both profit and sentiment. But not Brink. He helped the feds all he could, for reasons that should come as no surprise: “It would be a great benefit to us for we have the only complete set of road maps in the U.S. on which the new numbers will first appear.” In 1926 the federal government established the first national highway-numbering system and made Rand McNally’s road-marking enterprise obsolete. Brink estimated that his company had provided more than one million trail signs to mark 50,000 miles of roads. The map had reshaped the terrain.

Sometimes a map’s primary agenda is to pretend that it has none. National Geographic published a gorgeous three-page foldout in the magazine’s November 1990 issue, billing it as a “first-of-a-kind portrait [of the earth] from space.” The continents, delicately colored in green and brown with accents of mountaintop white, are set jewellike against the deep blue oceans: North and South America on the left, Eurasia and Africa on the right, set off top and bottom by the polar ice caps. The same image appears in the sixth (1990) edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World; Celestial Products sells it (for $14.95 mail order) as “The Earth From Space”; and it’s been distributed free by Northern Telecom under the title “A Clear Day.”

Of course it’s not a portrait in any ordinary sense. For starters, no matter how far away you get from the globe, you will never see it laid out flat. And if through some extradimensional magic you could, half of it would always be dark.

This beautiful image is not a portrait, it’s a map. And like any other map it reflects the choices of the mapmakers and government officials who put it together. Denis Wood documents some of them in The Power of Maps: the choice of multispectral scanners rather than photographic film, which would have given higher resolution (Defense Department orders); the choice of which spectra the satellite scanners would use (interagency compromises); the choice of data-processing system (budget bureau constraints); the choice of colors (map author Tom Van Sant’s preference); the choice of projection from globe to flat surface (National Geographic Society preference); the choice to omit clouds; and the choice to omit seasons (data were selected to show maximum vegetation everywhere). Wood observes, “You might object that showing the clouds would obscure the land and sea–and of course they would–but without them the Van Sant is not a portrait of the earth but at best a picture of its land and sea surfaces. Painted this way, your portrait would show no more than bones . . . and blood.”

The result of these choices, though beautiful, is no more a picture of the world than my map of the Loop is a picture of downtown Chicago. What’s its agenda, then? To show the earth, in Wood’s words, as “still, thin, fragile . . . as delicate as crystal”–as sacred and endangered. There’s nothing wrong with this point of view, or this map, except the attempt to disguise it as an agenda-free “portrait” of “a clear day.”

The social history of maps, unlike that of literature, art, or music, appears to have few genuinely popular, alternative, or subversive modes of expression. Maps are preeminently a language of power, not of protest.” –J.B. Harley, “Maps, Knowledge, and Power”

In recent years cartographers have fought their own “political-correctness” war over how to project the round earth onto a flat map. Projection is in part a technical problem. There’s an infinite number of ways to turn the surface of a sphere into something that will lie flat on the table, but none can preserve the areas and shapes and directions given on the globe. For instance, the infamous and omnipresent Mercator projection preserves directions, allowing a given compass bearing to be plotted as a straight line. In return for this navigational convenience, it grossly exaggerates areas in proportion to their distance from the equator.

Few rank-and-file map users these days have occasion to pilot an oil tanker from Gibraltar to Galveston, and professional mapmakers have disdained the Mercator projection for generations. But it still prevails in popular use–perhaps for somewhat the same reason that each state gets its own page in the road atlas.

Knowledgeable defenders of the Mercator (for most uses) are hard to find these days. The battles have been fought over what it should be replaced with. In 1988 National Geographic, which eschewed Mercator projections more than 70 years ago, adopted the Robinson projection, which preserves neither shape nor area perfectly, but distorts both to a degree.

Another candidate projection came from the hand of German cartographer Arno Peters, who devised a projection that doesn’t distort the size of land areas, though it does distort their shapes to some extent. His map has been adopted by the World Council of Churches and others concerned with international justice because it fits their agendas: if you map the distribution of hunger or of dictatorships on a Mercator or Robinson projection of the world, the problems will look a good deal smaller than if you mapped the same information using the Peters projection.

Peters also advocates portraying all areas of the world at the same scale in atlas maps, as opposed to the traditional practice of showing Europe and North America in many close-up maps and more “remote” areas in fewer larger maps. In the foreword to his world atlas Peters writes, “We need a new geographical picture of the world based on the equal status of all the peoples of the earth. This atlas represents all countries and continents at the same scale. This equal presentation of the world is the expression of the world-wide consciousness of solidarity which is beginning to overcome traditional Eurocentric thinking.”

“Eurocentrism” is more than a paper tiger. When University of Arizona geographer Thomas Saarinen asked first-year college students in 20 cities around the world to draw freehand world maps from memory, he expected them to exaggerate the size of their own home areas. But instead, as Science News reported last fall, “No matter where they lived, students from every continent. . . . greatly enlarged the size of Europe and shrank the dimensions of Africa.” Saarinen called the results “astounding. . . . In some cases, Europe is even bigger than Africa.”

Nevertheless, Peters has been backhanded by much of the American cartographic establishment for supposedly doing propaganda and not science. Robinson himself blasted the Peters projection for, among other things, making the continents look like “wet, ragged long winter underwear hung out to dry on the Arctic Circle.” National Geographic chief cartographer John Garver Jr. defends the Robinson projection, saying that “its compromises are the most reasonable” and that it “does not espouse any special point of view.”

But even if you can be “reasonable” from no point of view, the National Geographic Society isn’t. Its Eurocentrism continues to be painfully obvious in the 1990 sixth edition of the National Geographic Atlas, which devotes the same number of pages to Europe as it does to Asia: 19. (Africa gets just 8.) By contrast, the 1990 Peters Atlas–“the world in 43 equal-area maps”–contains 3 maps of Europe and 14 of Asia, as their relative sizes would indicate.

The point is not that Peters is “fair” while National Geographic isn’t. The point is not that National Geographic is “accurate” while Peters isn’t. The point is, whose agenda do you prefer?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.