Map-making isn’t always serious business. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, many U.S. artists embraced a form of cartography that swapped careful measurements and accurately rendered geography for a more whimsical mode of wayfinding: the pictorial map. Inspired in part by the sea-monster-filled maps of medieval Europe, these colorful, bright maps—often used for commercial advertising—illustrated outsized renderings of iconic architecture, major industries, tourist destinations, and folklore rather than simply streets and topography.
Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps, a new book by geographer Stephen Hornsby, collects 158 of these charming visuals, largely drawing on the Library of Congress’s extensive collection. “Because contemporary curators and librarians generally did not consider pictorial maps ‘geographic’ or ‘scientific,’ most libraries did not collect them and they are quite rare today,” as Ralph Ehrenberg, who heads the Library of Congress’s Geography and Map Division, writes in the book’s introduction. Though the first real pictorial map depicted the London Underground, artists and cartographers across the pond embraced the style wholeheartedly, forming what Ehrenberg calls “a uniquely American art form.”
Here are nine delightful, weird, informative maps from Picturing America:
In this tongue-in-cheek map of the U.S., the Los Angeles City limits take up almost the entirety of North America—encompassing not just the Midwest and the South, but also most of Mexico. Everything that’s not California is “unimportant anyway.” The illustration makes a fun counterpoint to the many equally skewed “how New Yorkers see the world” maps in existence.
Created during Prohibition, this map details the ups and downs of drinking. The human skull illustrates the various aspects of the “state of inebriation,” and is surrounded by an ocean of different kinds of booze. Note that “hill-arity heights” is right next to “hangover hollow.”
The detailed borders of this map are packed with information, including a timeline of world events and historical leaders as well as illustrations of major religious figures.
Some of the nicknames listed on this mid-century map aren’t super precise: La Jolla, located within San Diego, is commonly known as the Jewel City, but San Diego gets the nickname here, for instance. That said, the images used to illustrate each town are amazing.
This map, the first pictorial map from the publisher Houghton Mifflin, was influenced by MacDonald Gill’s Wunderground map, a 1914 illustration of London that Hornsby calls “the most influential pictorial map ever published.”
This sardonic map—whose full title is “A Map of Chicago’s Gangland from Authentic Sources: Designed to Inculcate the Most Important Principles of Piety and Virtue in Young Persons and Graphically Portray the Evils and Sin of Large Cities”—visualizes the territorial spread of Chicago’s Prohibition-era gangs, with wry cartoons and quips woven into every block of the city. The “scale” of the map goes from “one shooting” to “massacre,” and a crowned Al Capone presides over the whole scene from the emblem in the top right-hand corner.
This is one of six Pageant of the Pacific murals created by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Afterward, the murals were reproduced as prints.
Greyhound produced a whole series of cartoonish maps of the U.S. during the 1930s to advertise the bus company’s routes. The dotted lines represent connection routes, while the solid ones represent primary bus lines.
This pictorial map was made to advertise United’s DC-3 transcontinental flight route. It is scaled based on flying times between zero and four hours.
Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps is available for $40.