Metro

Boston Public Library to showcase role of women in mapmaking

It was 1762 in bustling London. Mapmakers were charting the world, creating maps like those printed and signed by M.A. Rocque.

Unknown to the public, M.A. Rocque was hiding a secret in plain sight.

While people assumed the initials belonged to a man, they actually belonged to Mary Ann Rocque, a widow who had quietly taken over her husband’s cartography business after he died.

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Rocque’s situation was not unique. For hundreds of years, the involvement of women in making maps was almost completely overshadowed by their male counterparts, unacknowledged by history books, according to the curators of a new exhibit that opened Saturday at the Boston Public Library.

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The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center showcases the unsung role of women in cartography with an exhibit of 40 maps, globes, and atlases made by women from the 17th to the 21st century.

“In the last 30 years or so there have been many books published about women in history that have been eye-openers,” said Alice Hudson, co-curator of the exhibit.

Hudson said historians have been uncovering the hidden involvement of women in map-making, as well as sculpture, architecture, and silversmithing.

The co-curator, who retired from the New York Public Library six years ago after 39 years in the map division, said it was not uncommon in the 18th century for widows to take over publishing their husbands’ work after they died.

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“That shows you that they were clearly involved with the business before their husbands died,” Hudson said, but it also implies that the women had no right to be publishing the maps under their own names.

“I think people in 18th-century, 17th-century Europe were not used to women publicly being involved in the field,” Hudson said. “I think they knew [women] worked in print shops, they knew [women] worked as engravers. . . . But I think they were used to the idea of not seeing [women’s] names.”

Hudson said historians now know of thousands of map-making women in history, an overwhelming but joyous discovery for the veteran curator.

On display is a late 19th-century map of immigrant settlements in Chicago. The map was compiled by Agnes Holbrook, a Wellesley College graduate who lived at the Jane Addams Hull House. The map is one of the first to show immigration patterns in an American city.

Janet Spitz, executive director of the map center, said looking at how the earth was charted throughout history can help historians learn about the geography, economics, and sociology of the past.

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“So many perspectives can be gained from looking at maps,” Spitz said, “and that’s our goal, to make it intriguing, fun, and educational, but on an interesting level that engages people.”

The exhibit, “Women in Cartography: Five Centuries of Accomplishments,” will run until March 27.

“This exhibit is something that I think is especially important to us,” Spitz said. “This is a story we want to tell.”

Sarah Roberts can be reached at sarah.roberts@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @heysarahroberts