By Samantha Hinton
Susan Schulten, historian of 19th-century American cartography at the University of Denver, studies the maps of schoolgirls, or what she calls a “hidden part of American education.” Schulten explores the history of schoolgirl mapmakers in connection to cartography and the history of education for women in America in the 1800s.
“A Map of the United States,” from Catharine M. Cook’s Book of Penmanship, made in Windsor, Vermont, in 1818.
The map above, “A Map of the United States,” was made in 1818 by Catharine M. Cooks in Windsor, Vermont. Catharine’s work highlighted a period in American history, after the American Revolution, when educators opened their doors to young female students. Previously, education was given to girls in the home, or for wealthier families, from a private tutor. Geography was deemed appropriate for girls to study, paving the way for schoolgirl mapmakers who beautifully traced or drew maps as learning exercises. Lacking crucial elements like scale, the final products are by no means maps with a practical spatial purpose. Rather, they were a method of practicing a student’s artistic and lettering skills and strengthening the education of women on their physical and geographical surroundings.
Frances Henshaw’s map of America from 1823 from her Book of Penmanship, was the first ‘schoolgirl map’ Schulten came across. Henshaw’s book includes geographical components for 19 states, and astronomical elements like comets, meridians, horizons, and climate zones. Captivated after discovering one map, Schulten dug deeper into this schoolgirl mapmaker story. She said, “once I started seeing patterns, I realized that this was a hidden part of American education that you wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for the maps.” She has found around 150 maps created and illustrated by American schoolchildren in the early 1800s.
Euphemia Fenno’s “Map of the United States,” made c. 1828
A fascinating aspect of her findings is that the majority of the maps were created by girls and young women. “Like a window onto a past that was otherwise unseen,” these maps help us resurrect the necessary histories of young American women that have been hidden in historical memory. Schulten describes the maps and their history as “a network of young women becoming teachers,” as well as a part of a larger political narrative. These maps are the history of young American women’s identities and knowledge, emerging and being shaped through a crucial geographical education.
A modern comparison of 1800s female cartographers is the Everywhere She Maps initiative as a part of Youth Mappers. Everywhere She Maps encourages and empowers women to be leaders in the geospatial, mapping, and technology worlds.
Other schoolgirl mapmakers featured in Schulten’s book include Hannah B. French of the New Hampton Female Seminary, Harriet E. Baker of Windsor, Vermont, Mary Lucy Hall, Juliana Carpenter, and Hannah Comstock. Read more about these American schoolgirl mapmakers, see their maps, and learn more about Susan Schulten’s story in Atlas Obscura, and National Geographic.