Dawn of the folding world

The presentation of maps – how they were bought and sold and how they were first used – is something I think about rather a lot (far too much?) It’s important to recall that virtually all early map-makers were businessmen first, artists and scientists second. There was little state-sponsored map-making, no requirement to map stuff just because it was there. And however much they may have delighted in their chosen profession (and there have always been easier ways of earning a living) staying afloat was an ever-present worry for most of them. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s hardly a page of the new dictionary of British Map Engravers without at least one bankruptcy on it!

Much of the scholarly discussion concerning the output of early map-makers revolves around the atlases and travel books they produced. Separately issued maps have a long history, but the survival rate is tiny – almost all of the early maps still in circulation today owe their existence to being bound between a couple of protective covers from the time they they were first purchased as useful objects, until the moment a couple of centuries or so later when someone else decided they had now become of antiquarian interest and were worth looking after. That includes maps which were initially intended for separate sale, but which were pressed into service to fill gaps elsewhere.

One could certainly buy, separately, maps which were printed from the same engraved metal plates as those published in the great atlases, but those which have survived tend to have been preserved in books. For example, one sometimes encounters Ortelius ‘atlas’ maps with blank versos, which were probably bound in when supplies of the sheet with text in the appropriate language (Dutch, French, Latin etc) printed on the back had run out. A few years ago I handled a lovely first edition of Speed’sTheatre where a couple of county maps were of the rare broadsheet issue (Warwickshire and Cheshire, printed by Thomas Snodham for Sudbury and Humble c. 1615). The descriptive text was printed in the form of side panels, but these had been trimmed off and pasted to the verso of the maps; it’s not hard to imagine a harassed bookseller, lacking a couple of counties with pre-printed versos, reaching for his pile of broadsheets so that he could complete an order for a whole atlas. Four centuries before ‘print on demand’, when setting up pages of letterpress was both costly and time consuming, getting the numbers right first time (and every time) was the key to survival. Having piles of unsold expensively printed paper could be as ruinous as not having enough …

My commercial instincts tell me it’s likely that more maps were sold separately than were sold in atlases. It makes sense to me that more people could afford individual maps of where they lived, where they had travelled or had commercial interests, or where events of significant interest were unfolding, than could afford the serious outlay involved in a buying a complete atlas. However, I suspect that survival rates are so low that it won’t be possible to prove it conclusively.

At a certain juncture someone had a bright idea: cut a printed map into panels and paste it onto some hard-wearing cloth such as linen or even hessian, and one instantly has a map which is both portable and durable; if the map is simply pasted to a piece of cloth there will be wear at the folds (if folded to make it ‘fit for the pocket’), but if the map is dissected and the panels are spaced apart slightly, that can be avoided. By the nineteenth century the range of options had become increasingly sophisticated, increasingly hierarchical one might say. One finds maps with carefully graded scales of charges printed on the covers or in the margins detailing the price for what is essentially the same basic map, but plain or hand-coloured, sold as a flimsy sheet of paper, or dissected, mounted on cloth, and folded into covers or a slipcase. Unsurprisingly it’s the durable, ‘deluxe’, coloured and mounted maps which, if any, have come down to us (and even here survival rates aren’t amazing; just try looking for a specific edition of a folding map!)

Grubby but illustrative, the cover of Philips’ Reduced Ordnance Map of London c. 1887: Roads &c. Coloured in Case 1/-, Mounted on Cloth in Case 3/6 [as here], Full Coloured, Folded in Case 2/-, Mounted on Cloth in Case 4/6, On Roller, Varnished, 5/6.

But when did all this start? Most survivors date from the mid eighteenth-century or later and it’s tempting to say, when earlier maps turn up which have been given the full dissection/mounting treatment, that it must have been done later. I can only counter that with a one-word question: why? A map I discovered recently is a case in point. It’s a Henry Overton issue of Speed’s county map of Buckinghamshire, c. 1730, and it has been trimmed to the neatline and dissected:



Henry’s father, John Overton, bought the well-worn copper plates for Speed’s county maps shortly before 1700, when they were already almost a century old. They are among the most famous British maps of the seventeenth century, published in numerous editions, and by the time Overton senior got in on the act the plates had passed through many hands and the impressions had become rather light. His son Henry altered the imprint and updated them by adding the roads – following the example set by John Ogilby in the 1670s. Although the plates survived for another half century or more, Henry Overton was the last to market them as functional ‘modern’ maps. The outline colour we see here is typical, and to some extent served to disguise the weakness of the impression. The cloth the map is mounted on is also interesting:



The quality of the backing, which is quite coarse, is certainly consistent with a mid-eighteenth century date, or earlier. Overton is known to have offered Speed’s maps for sale separately, and although the handwritten paper label is later (probably early ninteenth-century) the map itself seems to be as Overton sold it. I can’t think of a convincing reason why someone would have taken the trouble to dissect an obsolete map a century later.

A friend of mine has a set of Morden counties which he believes were dissected and mounted c. 1700, close to the time of their original issue in Camden’s Britannia. In time, I’m sure, evidence will come to light to push this way of selling maps back by half a century or more.

View all available folding maps