I have always had a soft spot for the 20th-century Earth globe, that blue pasteboard ball tipped at a jaunty 23.5-degree angle within a spray-painted metallic frame, the nations of the world (or previous incarnations thereof) neatly delineated in soothing pastels. The love of globes, like many kinds of geographic fervor, is a nostalgic pursuit. That may be a nostalgia for globes as artifacts of power (in the paneled library of some rail tycoon or prime minister), as academic instruments (next to the World Book encyclopedias in some bygone schoolroom), or as earnest midcentury décor (like the globes prominently on display in the home and work offices of Mad Men’s Don Draper).
There’s a 12-inch floor globe sitting beside my desk right now, and it precisely embodies all the strengths and weaknesses of globes everywhere. It’s a marvel of compactness and detail, but it’s necessarily missing a lot. For reasons of space, for example, only five peaks of the Himalayas are labeled—25 of the world’s 30 highest mountains are AWOL. Some of the largest American cities are edged out as well: Newark by its larger neighbor New York City; Bakersfield by a label for Mount Whitney; Louisville by the final ‘a’ in “North America.” Colorado Springs is missing because it lies on the gap between two of the paper gores that curve together to form each hemisphere, a division that might misalign its text, but much tinier towns like Colby, Kan., and Ajo, Ariz., are included to fill spaces that would otherwise look awkwardly empty. Parts of the Thailand-Cambodia border and the Morocco-Mauritania borders have vanished into paper perforations. To hold the two hollow hemispheres together sturdily, the equator is an adhesive red stripe 60 miles wide. Unlike a flat world map, only half of the Earth is visible at any one time.
And yet, in the globe’s favor, Greenland is its proper size, not the acromegalic titan that looms above us in many flat map projections. Alaska and Siberia are actually next to each other, not at opposite ends of the map. When my kids want to know why the seasons are changing, or how time zones work, or why an overseas flight passes near the North Pole instead of traveling in a “straight line,” or whether a sufficiently deep hole dug in our backyard would take us to China, we go straight to the globe.
The myth that Europeans of Columbus’ day believed the Earth to be flat is a Victorian invention, and wrong by almost two millennia. Medieval scholars universally accepted the spherical Earth known to the ancient Greeks, who had fashioned the first globes in the second century B.C. The oldest surviving globe is the colorfully named Erdapfel—“earth apple”—completed by German explorer Martin Behaim in 1492, while Columbus was still at sea. Behaim’s globe was made by wrapping a clay ball in layers of macerated paper, then removing the mould once the shell was dry, just like a preschool teacher making a papier-mâché piñata on an inflated balloon. Finally, a map drawn on parchment was glued to the plaster, in long, ever-widening strips extending from the poles toward the equator.
As the oddly hypnotic video below reveals, globes are still made using more or less the same method Martin Behaim used in 1492, but on an entirely different scale. Globes were hand-assembled luxury items until the 1930s, when two rival American globe companies—one in Indianapolis founded by map publisher George F. Cram, and another in Chicago headed by a school supply salesman named Luther Replogle—used mass production and canny marketing to reinvent globes as an affordable staple of middle-class homes. Sales ballooned from about 5,000 per year in 1930 to 300,000 per year a decade later. Lower prices drove the boom, but manufacturers also saw increased demand on the heels of world events: People actually waited in line to buy globes after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. At the height of the Cold War, globes were the best way to understand the over-the-pole threat posed by the Soviet Union, and Replogle’s company alone was making 2,000 globes a day. These were times when scale was called for, not detail.
But the current-events model doesn’t work anymore, says Dick Dillon, director of retail sales for Replogle globes. (Luther Replogle died in 1981.) “We’re a global society now. We hear about things going in all parts of the world every day.” Total annual globe sales peaked at upward of a million six or seven years ago and have been in a slow decline ever since. The factory where that how-globes-are-made video was shot in 2007 now stands empty; in the last few years, the venerable Cram and Replogle brands were both acquired by Herff Jones, an Indianapolis-based educational supply company best known for making class rings and yearbooks.
Even some of the rarest of old globes are increasingly—and inexplicably—cheap relative to other art objects and antiques, according to George Glazer, whose New York gallery is among the world’s leading globe dealers. “There’s not a lot of interest in this stuff,” he tells me. “These collectors are getting older, and new generations aren’t coming to take their place. People in their 40s and 50s collect comic books and pop culture things. They don’t want anything historical.” The highest price ever fetched by a globe at auction is still $1.8 million, for a pair of gilt Mercator globes originally made for the Ottoman sultan Murad III that sold in 1991. By comparison, the record for the world’s most expensive painting has been broken three times since then, with high-quality examples of modern art routinely selling in the tens of millions.
It’s hard not to wonder if the globe’s decline in prestige has anything to do with the dawn of geobrowser technologies like Google Earth. How can a spinning piece of cardboard stack up against a multi-terabyte virtual globe that includes 3-D buildings and trees, real-time weather and traffic, even underwater terrain complete with shipwrecks? I recently discovered that a bird’s-eye view of my Labrador retriever patrolling my backyard can now be glimpsed in the latest version of Google Earth. My office globe, by contrast, doesn’t even have room for Fresno, Calif.
But there may be hope for the humble globe. Bound atlases have stood up to digital encroachment much better than encyclopedias, because no screen can yet duplicate the tactile, immersive experience of exploring the Earth via paper maps. Globes have the same advantage, only in three dimensions. I’ve been typing these last few paragraphs amid constant interruptions from my 4-year-old daughter, who can’t keep her hands off the globe at my side. “Are these mountains?” she wants to know, rubbing her fingers over the relief of the Andes. “Why does this red line stay in the same place when I spin the world?” she asks about the equator.
A globe may be just an inexpensive cardboard sphere, but, more than 2,000 years after its invention, it’s still the real-life artifact that most closely resembles Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional “Aleph”—the object that makes all points of the universe visible at once. Google Earth may have the whole world, but to have the whole world in your hands, like the old spiritual says, you need a globe.