Pages from a 19th-Century Schoolgirl's Gorgeous Hand-Drawn Atlas of the United States

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Aug. 30 2013 11:40 AM

Pages from a 19th-Century Schoolgirl's Gorgeous Hand-Drawn Atlas of the United States

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These pages come from a book produced by Vermont student Frances Henshaw in 1828. The schoolgirl painstakingly copied maps of nineteen of the twenty-four existing states, adding a page of geographical explanation for each one. (You can see the maps in slideshow form on the David Rumsey Map Collection’s website.)

As Rumsey notes in his blog post about student maps from the nineteenth century, girls produced many of the child-drawn maps preserved today. He points to the influence of teacher and educational reformer Emma Willard, a believer in geographical education for young women, to explain this. (This particular atlas may reflect a direct implementation of Willard’s ideas, as Willard was the headmistress of Frances Henshaw’s school before her marriage in 1809.)

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Henshaw’s maps are drawn from three different atlas sources. Sometimes, as with the New Hampshire map below, she splits states up into counties; with other maps, such as that of North Carolina, she omits county boundaries in favor of clear representations of river systems. The Ohio map is unusual in its representation of historical events (“Major Truman Killed”) and ongoing political disputes.

Facing each map is a page containing more geographical information about the state (boundary states; topography; major towns). Henshaw sometimes presented this content in a beautifully-designed decorative diagram, as she did for North Carolina.

Besides these maps, Henshaw’s book also contains carefully transcribed information about astronomy (likewise a socially-sanctioned area of study for young women), American history, and climatic patterns of the world.

While this personal atlas was produced as a school project, Henshaw clearly relished and took pride in her work. An inscription on the title page indicates that she saved the book and gave it to her son in 1872.  

For more, here is an interpretive exhibit on Henshaw’s maps, created by scholar Bethany Nowviskie, who offers more speculation on the geographical pedagogies the maps might represent.

New Hampshire Map

Frances Henshaw, page from Frances A. Henshaw's Book of Penmanship Executed at the Middlebury Female Academy April 29, 1823. David Rumsey Map Collection.

NorthCarolinaMapFinal

Frances Henshaw, page from Frances A. Henshaw's Book of Penmanship Executed at the Middlebury Female Academy April 29, 1823. David Rumsey Map Collection.

NorthCarolinaDiagramFinal

Frances Henshaw, page from Frances A. Henshaw's Book of Penmanship Executed at the Middlebury Female Academy April 29, 1823. David Rumsey Map Collection.

OhioMapFinal

Frances Henshaw, page from Frances A. Henshaw's Book of Penmanship Executed at the Middlebury Female Academy April 29, 1823. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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