15 Vintage Online Map Collections to Explore
You can travel far and pay no fare (aside from your internet service fee) through the wealth of online map collections. While not the same as handling a geographic tool that was intended as a tactile object, these 15 collections let you explore vintage subway maps, globes from the Enlightenment, and real and imagined worlds.
1. DAVID RUMSEY HISTORICAL MAP COLLECTION
Arguably the best online resource for maps has long been an incredible private collection one man decided to freely share with the public. The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection concentrates on cartography between the 16th and 21st centuries. Digitizing started in 1996, and now more than 70,000 objects are online, from celestial atlases to nautical charts. In 2009, David Rumsey donated his over 150,000 maps to Stanford University, which this April opened the David Rumsey Map Center to provide physical access to the collection.
2. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
The Library of Congress began sharing digitized materials online in 1994, with numerous map collections now available to survey, with a focus on American history. Maps date back to the 17th century, with subjects such as land designated as National Parks, American railroad maps from 1828 to 1900, fire insurance maps, topographical sketches by Confederate cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss, puzzle maps, World War II military situation maps, and late 19th to early 20th-century illustrated panoramic maps. The Library of Congress’s Worlds Revealed blog regularly highlights material in these collections, whether "mapping alpinist elephants" or examining imaginary maps from literature.
3. HARVARD MAP COLLECTION
As the oldest map collection in the United States, Harvard University holds some 400,000 maps and 6,000 atlases, many of which are online in their Virtual Collection. They include nautical charts, antiquarian maps dating back to the 16th century, and large-scale maps still used in college classrooms. Many of these are on the Harvard Geospatial Library, so you can interact with them as overlays with GPS coordinates. And if you’re in the Cambridge neighborhood before September 26, the Map Gallery Hall at Harvard's Pusey Library is hosting an exhibition on National Park maps to celebrate their conservation.
4. PERSUASIVE CARTOGRAPHY AT CORNELL UNIVERSITY
Part of Cornell University Library's Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, the PJ Mode Collection of "persuasive" cartography comprises maps that emphasize opinion over geographic truth. Among the 310 maps online, you can find a 1904 anti-Russian map from Japan where the country is a grotesque octopus grasping countries around the world, an illustration from an 1894 issue of Puck Magazine with a Catholic cardinal's devil-shaped shadow falling across a map of the United States, and an 1855 cross-section of hell inspired by Dante's Inferno.
5. ATLAS OF THE HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF THE UNITED STATES AT UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND
The 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States by Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright is a titan of geography, with maps charting the centuries of change in the development of the United States. In 2013, the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond launched an online version, with over 700 maps available to explore, many animated to demonstrate their documented changes over time. Each offers some in-depth insight on history, whether the 19th-century displacement of indigenous people, the progression of women’s suffrage, or the disappearance of the forests from 1620 to 1926.
6. BODLEIAN MAP ROOM
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford have a stunning map room with coastal navigation maps from the 15th to 18th centuries, WWI trench maps, and thorough survey maps. For those not able to journey to the City of Dreaming Spires, their online showcase includes among its many digitizations an impressive high-resolution image of the 16th-century Sheldon tapestry map of Gloucestershire [PDF]. Zoom in close and see the delicate stitching on rivers, trees, homes, and hills emerge on the early modern textile map.
7. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
National Geographic features many contemporary maps on a dedicated section of their website, often in conjunction with articles, covering topics such as the spread of ebola and earthquakes in Nepal. Vintage maps can also be found, like the 1889 route of the Abraham Lincoln funeral train, and incredibly specific resources like a 1960s chart of the magazine’s cartographic typefaces.
8. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FIRE INSURANCE MAPS
The New York Public Library has a large collection of online maps on international cartography. However, one of their greatest resources is local, with most of their 9000 pages digitized from 162 atlases being fire insurance maps, many for New York City. These show the city at an intense level of detail, with its building footprints, lot dimensions, and owners. You can even help improve their digital accuracy through an online game called Building Inspector.
9. DIGITAL PUBLIC LIBRARY OF AMERICA
The Digital Public Library of America is not one collection, but an online discovery tool launched in 2013 for libraries and other institutions across the country. Among its web-only exhibitions are two related to maps, with one focused on cartography in American culture, exploring westward expansion, tourism, and the decline of the forests, along with novelties like a map of folklore music. Another highlights how the country was pulled apart during the Civil War, with a circular panoramic view of the Gettysburg Battlefield from 1866, as well as maps of fortifications at 1863 Richmond.
10. OSHER MAP LIBRARY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MAINE
The Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine recently started an initiative to digitize their 3D globes, objects which were meant to be touched, and are now too fragile. The library has around 300 globes, dating back to the 17th century. Already available for digital spinning is a gorgeous 1603 celestial globe by Willem Janszoon Blaeu covered with constellations, and a 1792 celestial globe by Giovanni Maria Cassini showing the progression of astronomical knowledge.
11. BRITISH LIBRARY
Among the thousands of maps at the British Library is a tiny example on a 2000-year-old Roman coin, and the 16th-century first atlas of Europe by Gerardus Mercator. This collection has an overwhelming amount of geographic information for the amateur cartographer, yet the library offers many accessible highlights online, including a 17th-century terrestrial globe from China, aerial views of Dutch Baroque gardens from the 18th century, and panoramic views of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666.
12. USGS HISTORICAL TOPOGRAPHIC MAP COLLECTION
The United States Geological Survey has the absolute best geographic resource on the physical features of the American landscape, and its nearly 200,000 historical topographic maps are available to the public through the Historical Topographic Map Collection. While the TopoView offers online views, you can also purchase printed maps—valuable for preparing for a hike or building a highway.
13. NORMAN B. LEVENTHAL MAP CENTER
The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at Boston Public Library has over 200,000 maps, with recent online initiatives including a portal for over 1500 maps from 1750 to 1800 related to the American Revolutionary War. There are hundreds of maps of local interest on 19th-century Boston, and nearly 600 bird's-eye view maps. Many go back to the 16th century, when aerial views had to be illustrated from ground-level measurements and imagination, and later in the 19th century when cartographers employed hot air balloons.
14. NYC SUBWAY
Unaffiliated with the MTA, the NYCSubway.org site exclusively offers maps of the New York City subway. They date back to the system’s formation in the 19th century, with 1880 to 1900 survey maps to prepare for tunneling, midcentury charts from when the subway was run by three companies, and maps created specifically for the 1964 World's Fair.
15. BRITISH MAGAZINE MAPS AT MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY
Michigan State University has among its scans of African and North American maps (which are especially rich for the Great Lakes State) an intriguing collection of 18th-century British magazine maps. The Gentleman's Magazine regularly illustrated military engagements and other current or historic events through maps. Some are religious, like a map of the Garden of Eden "before God Destroy'd it with the Flood." Others show lead mines in Cumberland in 1751, plans for settling new colonies from 1769, and layouts for aspirational American country towns from 1770, before the Revolution dashed those geographical hopes.