11 Of The Most Influential Infographics Of The 19th Century

Think of infographics as a modern-day obsession? Not even close. Cartography scholar Susan Schulten gives a brief tour of the 19th century’s most astonishing charts.

We live in a world steeped in graphic information. From Google Maps and GIS to the proliferation of infographics and animated maps, visual data surrounds us. While we may think of infographics as a relatively recent development to make sense of the immense amount of data available on the Web, they actually are rooted in the 19th century–a fact that I write about in my most recent book.

[John Smith’s “Historical Geography” (1888) portrays a country driven by two fundamentally different ideals: the avaricious slaveholding South and the God-fearing, righteous North.]

Two major developments led to a breakthrough in infographics: advances in lithography and chromolithography, which made it possible to experiment with different types of visual representations, and the availability of vast amounts of data, including from the American Census as well as natural scientists, who faced heaps of information about the natural world, such as daily readings of wind, rainfall, and temperature spanning decades. But such data was really only useful to the extent that it could be rendered in visual form. And this is why innovation in cartography and graphic visualization mattered so greatly.

[Emma Willard’s “Chronographical Plan,” or “The Tree of Time” (1864) attempts to “impress upon the mind” of her young students the logic and order of U.S. history.]

The following survey of early information contains examples that are by no means intuitive or clear–some are downright chaotic–but they stand out for their attempt to integrate more than one class of information or tell a complex story in a single picture. They skim the surface of a much larger reorientation toward visual and graphic knowledge that has become all but assumed today.

This is an adaptation of material appearing in Susan Schulten’s new book, Mapping the Nation. Click here to buy it. To read her civil-war blog on The New York Times, click here.