Styles of Comparing Rivers

I am pleased to add two new comparatives to my collection: A Map of the Principal Rivers shewing their Courses, Countries, and Comparative Lengths by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK)

Principal Rivers by SDUK, 1834. Rivers shown by direction of flow emptying into central sea. (Own work)
Principal Rivers by SDUK, 1834. Rivers shown by direction of flow emptying into central sea. (Own work)

and
Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers Throughout the World by Fielding Lucas,

Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers of the World by Lucas, 1823. (Own work)
Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers of the World by Lucas, 1823. (Own work)

of 1834 and 1823, respectively.

Lucas’ Comparative Lengths… is a very ‘conventional’ rivers comparative, where the rivers are shown sorted by continent, then by length, all draining into a representative body of water on the left. Of note is that the longest rivers of the Americas wrap, while the longest river of Africa is shown interrupted and truncated. What is to be gleaned from this? We can surmise that this is a matter of the author’s perception, right or wrong, that the rivers on this map of primary interest to the reader were those of the Americas, specifically the US. This map was clearly intended for a US audience and was published in Baltimore, MD. The treatment of the Congo & Niger as both interrupted and truncated tells the reader to be aware that there are long rivers in Africa, that the territory is unexplored, and that in the author’s mind they are of secondary importance.

American Rivers on Lucas' 'Comparative Lenghts'. (Own work)
American Rivers on Lucas’ ‘Comparative Lenghts’. (Own work)
African Rivers on Lucas' 'Comparative Lenghts'. (Own work)
African Rivers on Lucas’ ‘Comparative Lenghts’. (Own work)

In contrast to the above, the A Map of Principal Rivers … by SDUK is abstract and even surreal, even by the standards of comparative maps. It has an unusual sort, from my analysis it is sorted by the direction it drains, then by size. Interestingly, it shows all rivers emptying into a central water body. This might reflect an effort to highlight the interconnectedness of waterways. Further evidencing this is the inclusion of inland bodies of water, like Lake Michigan pictured with the St Lawrence, which are usually not shown on rivers comparative views. Alternatively, to focus on Lake Michigan, the inclusion of such a body might simply be a reflection of SDUK’s mission to provide the working class with scientific knowledge. Where Chicago was rapidly emerging as a center of industry in the early 1800s, it no doubt would have had a large working class who would have benefited from having a local point of reference. That said, SDUK was a British organization and their consideration of or distribution to American readers is unknown to me. Note that Lake Michigan is shown as straight rather than curved, as I’ve previously discussed (same engraver).

Nile detail of Principal Rivers by SDUK. (Own work)
Nile detail of Principal Rivers by SDUK. (Own work)
Great Lakes detail of Principal Rivers by SDUK. (Own work)
Great Lakes detail of Principal Rivers by SDUK. (Own work)
Central sea detail of Principal Rivers by SDUK. (Own work)
Central sea detail of Principal Rivers by SDUK. (Own work)

These lovely comparatives, one simple and one ornate, can tell us as much about their intended readers as they can about the understanding of the world at the time.

© Peter Roehrich, 2015

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