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The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-century France and England

Author(s):Pedley, Mary Sponberg
Reviewer(s):Danforth, Susan

Published by EH.NET (November 2006)

Mary Sponberg Pedley, The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-century France and England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xvii + 435 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-226-65341-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Susan Danforth, John Carter Brown Library.

In October, 2001, I attended the Fourteenth Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lecture in the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library in Chicago. That year the theme was “A Taste for Maps: Commerce and Cartography in Early Modern Europe,” and the keynote and primary speaker was Mary Pedley, who over the course of two days gave three well-crafted lectures on the effect of economic factors on eighteenth-century map production, issues that had not been tackled very often in writings in the history of cartography. In the 1970s the often politically edgy work of Brian Harley on issues of power and authority in the design, publication, and distribution of maps began to shift many scholars’ attention from more traditional topics in the field — i.e., mankind’s chronological “progression” from geographically benighted to scientifically enlightened — towards an approach that focused more on subjective issues of map production, offering potential for the interdisciplinary investigation that had become popular in academe. But there really hadn’t been much work done on certain foundation issues. Simply put, how could one offer a fully developed theory of why maps were or were not produced, why they looked the way they did, without an appreciation of the many practical considerations that affected production and distribution, such as methods of compilation, cost of materials like copper plates and paper and, of course, the cost of labor and transportation? Certainly these practical issues had at least as much impact on what was or was not produced as issues of imperial design and power. Obviously, what was needed was someone of ability to take the time to explore available archival resources and knit the myriad pieces of information together to provide a picture of the day-to-day world of the eighteenth-century map. Fortunately, Mary Pedley has done just that with The Commerce of Cartography. Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-century France and England, a masterful overview of the nuts and bolts of the London and Paris map trade.

Pedley begins with a paragraph explaining eighteenth-century French and English monetary units. Without this background information it is certain that a large percentage of her audience (myself, in particular) would not be able to appreciate the nuanced economic comparisons she draws. The main body of the book that follows examines the many elements that came together to produce and market a map. The book concludes with six appendices that provide information about the expenses of map production in France, England and North America respectively — the costs of surveying, purchasing materials such as copper and paper, and paying the engravers and artists. Also presented are map and print prices in France and England, and wages by occupation and date. These appendices contain a wealth of information that can be profitably mined by scholars to shed light on any number of questions

Part one, “Making Maps,” explores the complexities of map production step-by-step, contrasting situations in England and France that often determined which maps were produced and how they looked. For instance, in France a mapmaker was perceived as a professional, often with an academic background, while in England cartography was seen as more of a craft or trade with many of its practitioners self-taught. Among other things, Pedley discusses such issues as the cost of surveys, why some maps were printed while others remained in manuscript, and how long it took to produce an engraved map.

Part two, “Selling Maps,” addresses financial issues connected with mapmaking and some of the problems of plagiarism, once again pointing out differences between France and England. In terms of financing, lack of government support in England led map publishers to develop joint partnerships and other solutions to raise capital, in contrast with the situation in France, where provincial governments typically provided sponsorship. Although a climate for copyright had begun to develop in England from the first such Act of 1709 (which protected booksellers, not authors), there was no such government protection in France.

Part three, “Evaluating Maps,” may burst some bubbles. As a map curator, I recall students and researchers over the years who felt certain that as soon as a new place was “discovered,” as soon as a significant event was reported, it would certainly appear on a map, because it made sense that the “public” would demand and support the publication of scientifically accurate, up-to-date maps. So it is interesting to read that the French cartographer Guillaume Delisle was praised by his contemporaries for adding new information to his maps slowly, so as not to shock his public. Other eighteenth-century commentators were happy to see that mapmakers left outdated information on maps “just in case.” Perhaps the island in the middle of the Pacific that hadn’t been seen in fifty years was there after all. What mapmaker would want to be responsible for a shipwreck? “In the end,” Pedley says, “what sold maps was price. A copy or counterfeit was as good as the real thing to the consumer.” That said, she also points out that throughout the eighteenth century mapmakers grappled with ways to improve the quality of cartography, focusing on the need for improved training, increased government support, and the enforcement of laws regarding privileges and copyright, topics that Pedly addresses in this final section of the book.

The Commerce of Cartography deserves a prominent place on the bookshelf of every cartographic specialist, for it can be used as a ready reference to provide answers to questions that are asked again and again — How many maps could be pulled from a copper plate? How long did it take to engrave a map? How much did it cost? — information about practical issues of mapmaking that is often difficult to come by. But this book should also be read and used by everyone who is considering integrating cartographic themes into their research in any discipline. Pedley states that her book is “less concerned with the power structures inherent in the map trade than in what was economically possible and economically profitable for map producers.” It could be suggested that a fuller understanding of those issues would do much to enrich future scholarship.

Susan Danforth is Assistant Librarian and Curator of Maps at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century