Flipping Over the Great Lakes

I am pleased to add Mitchell’s 1860 The World in Hemispheres with Other Projections to my collection. This is principally a globular projection but instead of the vignettes that would have adorned a 18th century map, additional views fill the corners: the upper left and right corners have comparatives of the rivers of the western and eastern hemispheres, respectively.

Mitchell's 1860 'The World in Hemispheres.' Note comparative features in the upper corners.
Mitchell’s 1860 ‘The World in Hemispheres.’ Note comparative features in the upper corners (own work).

The use of comparatives in lieu of vignettes was common among 19th century maps, and we can infer from these that comparative views were perceived as worthy cartographic endeavors rather than mere curiosities. Page space was valuable, as evidenced by cartographers’ efficient usage of it, and easily could have been filled with other insets: select countries or cities, climate zones, or vegetation and animal life by region of the globe. Perhaps it was their role in commerce that made rivers an appealing feature to include; perhaps it was because many rivers were still being charted. What ever the reasons may be, they are beyond the scope of this analysis.

Instead, I’ll draw your attention to the orientation of the rivers. All western hemisphere rivers are depicted as emptying west to some sea off the left coast–the pacific ocean. Of course this is not accurate–although characteristic of comparatives, which took a vastly reductionist approach to compare the features by a single attribute–the Mississippi drains south into the Gulf of Mexico, the Amazon northeasterly into the Atlantic, the Potomac southeasterly into the Atlantic, and the Colorado south to the Sea of Cortez. The St Lawrence, subject of this analysis, flows east to the Atlantic.

Comparative detail of Mitchell's 1860 'The World in Hemispheres' (own work).
Comparative detail of Mitchell’s 1860 ‘The World in Hemispheres’. Note the Great Lakes on the St Lawrence (own work).

Looking closely at the St Lawrence, the Great Lakes are in the reverse order; the eastern most lake, Lake Ontario, is shown as though it’s the western most, and vice versa for Lake Superior. While these are out of geographical order (geographical order is not expected in a comparative, generally speaking), this reordering keeps them in relative order vis-a-vis the mouth of the river. But the cartographers took this reordering a step further, not only did they flip the order of the lakes, they also flipped the shapes of the lakes, engraving their mirror images. Looking closely at Lake Michigan, it’s characteristic bean shape is shown curving in the opposite direction.

Great Lakes detail of Mitchell's 1860 'The World in Hemispheres' (own work).
Great Lakes detail of Mitchell’s 1860 ‘The World in Hemispheres’ (own work).
Reflected Great Lakes detail of Mitchell's 1860 'The World in Hemispheres' (own work).
Reflected Great Lakes detail of Mitchell’s 1860 ‘The World in Hemispheres’ (own work).

The decision to flip the lakes’ shapes offers some important clues into the Mitchell’s purpose. First off, reflecting the images around the vertical axis shows that he intended to make the image as truthful as possible. It signals to the reader that he did not make a mistake in showing the flow of the river–that a cartographer would flip the direction of the river and the orientation of the lakes–is hardly parsimonious. Moreover, the Great Lakes are perhaps the most important aspect of the St Lawrence for its economic and transportation functions. The river, thanks to some canals, and more recently a system of locks and canals, affords the outputs of the midwest industrial infrastructure, including that of Chicago, as well as western Pennsylvania and New York, cheap access to the Atlantic. To that end, the reflection of the lakes assists the reader in locating the major industrial hubs on the lakes: Chicago, Erie, Buffalo, etc. A quick flip of the image in Pixlr reveals that the lakes are mirrored correctly.

The quirky illustration of the Great Lakes underscores the ingenuity of 19th century cartographers, skill of engravers, and their efforts to make comparative views valuable and useful to their readers.

I am happy to have purchased this map from Brian DiMambro.

© Peter Roehrich, 2015.


4 thoughts on “Flipping Over the Great Lakes

  1. Wonderful detail, and useful insights drawn from it, PR. The images are gloriously clear. Are projections on a globe globular? Global? Globerific? I am unfamiliar with the globular usage, but that might only suggest I’m just poorly versed in cartographic terminology.


    1. Thanks for the good word RB. You got it: a globular projection is just a view as though one were looking at a globe across the room. Distortion is a problem with any projection, but the globular projection primes the viewer to expect it because it so conjures looking at a globe, allowing the reader to anticipate and correct for it in his/her mind. Do you find them easy to read?


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