Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amazing 1880 Statistical Atlas and some clunky GIFs

I stumbled on this 1883 atlas and my jaw dropped.  Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States.  I've never before seen such a mastery of graphical information design packed into one book...and it was produced 130 years ago.  The data comes from the 1880 census and is a real pleasure to behold.  Here's the full title:
Scribner's statistical atlas of the United States showing by graphic methods their present condition and their political, social and industrial development. By Fletcher W. Hewes and Henry Gannett, Chief Geographer of the United States Geological Survey. Formerly Geographer of the tenth census of the United States.

Go ahead and lose a day over at David Rumsey's site, where he provides scanned versions of every page of this and other books.

This cover, that I wish I could touch.

Stuffed with pages like this, that I wish I could smell.

Anyway, since so many of the pages showed categorical information in sequence, I couldn't resist slapping them into some clunky animated GIFs.

Different ways of dying, and what those proportions look like across the states.  FYI, "apoplexy" is the old name for stroke. Washington state?  Deadly with pneumonia!  Utah is the place for abdominal distress.  Half of New Mexico deaths were attributed to heart conditions.  The Consumption?  Pretty much everywhere.  Everybody dies.  And while that inevitability is fresh in my mind, seeing a picture of the spatially varying causes tells me that there is more than environmental determinism at work, but evidence that leads to better care and precaution.

The particular geographies of economics.  Not far removed from emancipation, the South, former slave-holding domain of cotton plantations, was still the overwhelming agricultural zone of the nation.  The fertile plains of the Midwest had yet to be fully tilled under into the corn belt and bread basket of a hemisphere.  As the railroads expanded west, zipping crops and livestock east became more logistically feasible.

In the late 1800s the United States were a magnet for Europeans looking for opportunity and room to spread their legs.  Shortly after this map was made, my Norwegian ancestors landed in, not surprisingly, Chicago.  More than 20% of Ireland's population left their homeland in the preceding decades, many of them to the young United States, particularly Massachusetts, fleeing famine when the mono-culture of the potato collapsed, among other things.

Anyway, it is works like this that make me feel a combination of exhilaration and and anxiety.  On one hand, it is an inspiring example of thoughtful and artistic work by a team that is not just at the top of their craft, but wielding an expertise that makes cartographers 130 years into the future envious.  On the other hand, I am taken aback at the herculean feat of data wrangling at a time when these locations were distant and dangerous and remote by weeks.  I don't hold a strong confidence that I would be able to replicate their work in its own right even with the massive technological and communications advantages that I enjoy. But, of course, it's not about the tools but rather the care taken in communicating a story. Ironically, I look at visual performances like this and suspect that it is in part precisely because our ability now to churn out products so quickly and effortlessly that the results often do not compare to those that required an inordinately greater investment and therefore commanded a sense of magnitude in the proceeding that has few analogs today.  But I recognize the debate between quantity and quality is largely a false one, as there are data artists today who are no less thoughtful in their approach.  And while the overall volume of visual work has exploded, I see this as evidence of a broad pool of new and interested participants who have every opportunity to improve and thrive.
Though as for this, I say well done, Fletcher, Hewes, Gannett, and team.  You are still wowing, generations out.

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