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At the Boston Public Library, mapping US history from sea to not-so-shining sea

Rand McNally & Co., "Northern Pacific Rail Road and Connections," 1885.Leventhal Map & Education Center

As the 19th century began, the United States was less than a quarter century old and pretty much confined to the Atlantic coast. We’d now say Eastern Seaboard, but that implies a Western Seaboard, which there wasn’t back then. That would all change. How much? In 1790 Marblehead had the 11th largest population of any US municipality (behind Providence, but ahead of Gloucester).

By the beginning of the 20th century, a once-littoral nation had come to span a continent. That spanning, as well as the subsequent filling in, has been the subject of “America Transformed: Mapping the 19th Century,” at the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library. “Homesteads to Modern Cities, 1862-1900," the second part of that exhibition, runs through May 10. Ronald E. Grim curated it.


Outside the main gallery, an 11-map overture, as one might call it, shows how the boundaries of the United States changed over the course of the century. Inside, certain themes dominate: race, immigration, railroads, economic growth — which is also to say economic dislocation.

At least three of those themes remain highly relevant. The show doesn’t come down too hard on the continuities and parallels. It doesn’t have to. The wall text does frequently include commentaries from scholars of color that offer a counterpoint to the standard triumphalist view of 19th-century expansion.

The exhibition is doubly varied. The examples of cartography range from an 1896 mechanical map that shows the growth of the United States to a fabulously detailed, block-by-block, bird’s-eye view of Richmond, Ind., in 1884. And variety extends to the show not being limited to maps. One finds a surveyor’s transit, stereographic slides, posters, photographs. Andrew J. Russell’s famous image of the completion of the transcontinental railroad is here. So, too, is an anonymous photograph of three of the Chinese laborers who laid the final tie on the Central Pacific side.


A 1919 photograph of Chinese laborers who had worked on the transcontinental railroad.Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Some of the most striking items are what we would now call informational graphics — maps for statistics. With “Distribution of the Iron Ores Mined in the Lake Superior Region in 1902,” it’s hard to say which is more impressive: the stateliness of the title or the sweep of red lines curving out of the Mesabi Range and extending to numerous Great Lakes ports.

Familiar names are to be found here: Rand McNally & Co., Lewis and Clark, Comstock Lode, 1893 World’s Fair (Chicago gets its own small display), Oklahoma Land Rush (or Theft, to be more accurate). At least one familiar name occurs in an unfamiliar context. Among the informational graphics is “The Sixth Ward of Philadelphia: The Distribution of Negro Residents . . . .” Its creator was W.E.B. DuBois. Both striking and handsome, it looks like a cross between a circuit diagram and a late Mondrian canvas.

The DuBois chart is a reminder that appearance can matter as much as information. Beauty as well as utility is on display in “America Transformed.” With its curves and whorls and shadings, Clarence King and James T. Gardiner’s 1870 “Map of the Yosemite Valley...” could be black-and-white kin to a Helen Frankenthaler print. Speaking of whom, the quite-delicate beauty of a two-page map of north central Colorado in an 1877 atlas from the US Geological and Geographical Survey (as it was then called) shares Frankenthaler’s palette.


Clarence King and James T. Gardiner's "Map of the Yosemite Valley…," 1870.Boston Public Library/Leventhal Map & Education Center

Most of the items in “America Transformed” are reproductions. Presumably this is for reasons of security, fragility, unavailability, or all three. Still, the prevalence of reproduction is disappointing. The Leventhal Center has remarkable holdings, and one of its great achievements has been making so much of the collection accessible online. But no small part of the wonder of a show such as this — the purpose of having gallery space at the BPL rather than just a bunch of URLs — is to see actual relics of the past as well as renderings of it.

AMERICA TRANSFORMED: Mapping the 19th Century, Part Two, Homesteads to Modern Cities, 1862-1900

At Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, through May 10. 617-859-2387, www.leventhalmap.org.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.