Maps: Representing Land, People and Activity

July 31, 2018 | Jane

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Maybe you've heard the Great Lake Swimmers song "Your Rocky Spine" — a kind of haunting love story about land, water and the glacier-scraped Canadian Shield:

Floating over your rocky spine

The glaciers made you, and now you're mine...

For some of us, making or even reading maps holds a similar kind of intimacy. A map delivers substance and practical data, complex information that can be interpreted and absorbed with context and art. This is the map's day job. Imagination also comes into play though, from the life-size maps of Jorge Luis Borges and Lewis Carroll to the imaginings of Robert Lewis Stevenson (Treasure Island), William Faulkner (the Yoknapatawpha novels), C.S. Lewis (Narnia series) and countless others. Maps are a proxy for the land itself — a symbolic way to grasp it all.

The map maker makes so many choices: what to put onto the paper and what to leave out; how to express the tricky political grey areas; how to bring out personality with colours, fonts and feature prominence. They are Galetea-like in bringing it to life. Is it any surprise we fall in love?

It takes some getting to know maps, of course, to be a true lover of maps. Shall I introduce a few that Toronto Public Library preserves in its Digital Archive?


"Geological Map of Canada and Newfoundland" (1866)


This Canadian Geological Survey is 175 years old, and has a prosaic relationship with the land. The sober beauty of these maps jibes stylistically with the dogged determination it took to explore the nation and steward its resources. A relationship born of pragmatism. 


"Map of Border Cities of Windsor, Walkerville, Ford City, Sandwich and Ojibway Canada" (1920)


Here is a map that is trying to say a lot. Maybe too much. But the enthusiasm for the relationships set up by the lines and names and border photos is alluring nevertheless — a little like a polymath friend who is interesting... in small doses. 


"Map & Chart of the Muskoka Lakes" (1899)


The soft turquoise and peachy colours of this Muskoka map allude to the breezy summers of cottage country. Implied also, somewhat unsubtly, is the sociability expected among cottagers listed at the left of the map. 


 Two maps of Toronto's waterfront


Above (dated 1852) and below (dated 1853) are two very different visions of the Toronto waterfront, one imagined for walking and enjoying life, another for transit and commerce. 



"The Toronto Purchase" (1805)


The map above is, shall we say, basic. For all its simplicity, it evokes a million stories: misery and loss, growth and change. 


Fire insurance plans


      Book cover of Fire insurance plan of Bobcaygeon, Ont.; population 946

Whether they're for big cities or tiny towns in Ontario, these incongruously sweet-looking fire insurance maps all have a unifying design. They are a key resource for genealogists, as well as for historians tracing urban development.


"The World on Mercator's Projection" (1851)

The above map is a Mercator view (a standard map projection) that is almost funny for its pretense of a calm world which is orderly and under control. No sea monsters or "terra incognita" here. Tiny, detailed vignettes at the bottom suggest the world's delights are all within reach.

Read more about the library's maps in our blog post, "The Art of Cartography: Charting the Sky and the Sea."


Maps are made digitally now, but thoughtful design is still an essential for delivering the information — and the pleasure