A Gallery of Mid-19th Century Comparative Maps


Click here to enlarge (3000 x 3689).

Back in December 2011, we featured this map here on the site; a comparative map of principal river lengths published in 1834. The map was a rather quirky attempt by the London-based Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) to present the layman with an all-in-one glance that relative courses and sizes of the world’s rivers in a single map. In the process, the map created a rather fantastical geography in which 73 major rivers emptied into a circular central sea.

Comparative maps such as these were a common feature in 19thcentury atlases; their descendants can still be seen today. That said, modern-day comparative diagrams lack the quaint charm of their counterparts from centuries past that come from times where much of the world still had yet to be properly mapped. Below is a sampling of these maps and diagrams, most of which featured rivers and mountains. Don’t forget to click on the maps to see them in full-size for the full effect.


This diagram isn’t so much a map as it is a bar graph using implied river courses. Made circa 1826-27 by Anthony Finley in Philadelphia, it’s rather amusing to see the lengths of the Amazon, the Yangtze, and (especially) the Nile underestimated so greatly while the Mississippi is shown as the world’s longest river.  To demonstrate how quickly things were changing with regard to geographic knowledge at this time, even the SDUK map above produced just seven years later shows increased lengths for both the Amazon and the Nile. Also notable here beside the minimalist design is the number of major rivers omitted; the Mackenzie, the Congo, and the Brahmaputra among them.


Finley’s atlas also included this vibrant image displaying the height of the world’s principal mountains as known as at the time in the United States, and it greatly exposes the lack of knowledge westerners had about the rest of the world at the time. Perhaps of most interest is that the ‘highest peak in the world’ is shown as being Nepal’s Dhaulagiri (‘Dhawalgeri’), which we know today to be seventh-highest (British surveyors would disprove this after the Great Trigonometric Survey of the Himalayas in the late 1840s). Mammoth ranges such as the Rockies, Alaska Range, St. Elias, and even the Caucasus are pretty well non-existent here. Two centuries later, it’s amusing to see Connecticut’s ‘Blue Mountains’ (the Taconic Mountains), Saint Helena’s Diana’s Peak, and the Great Pyramid of Giza on a list of ‘principal mountains’.


Published at approximately the same time (1825) is this French comparative map of mountains published in J-A-C Bouchon’s Atlas geographique. Rather than simply portray mountains, it creates a faux landscape to portray the elevations where certain cities are located, the elevations where certain plants stop growing, and even the elevation where condors stop flying. The chart uses both English and metric measurements, though oddly enough the metric measurements used here in this chart are millimetres rather metres, which seems slightly ridiculous in retrospect.


This 1823 William Darton chart is the first known publication to combine comparative depictions of mountains and rivers in the same illustration. While the mapping at this stage in time, as aforementioned, is suspect (who knew that the headwaters of the St. Lawrence were in Indiana, or that the ‘Stony’ Mountains topped out at a paltry 6 250 ft?) and the river courses are still artificially straightened, the novel combinations of the two concepts and the attractiveness of the chart as a whole make a good impression. Especially notable is the mountain chart, in which the mountains listed are arranged in a line from lowest at left to highest at right. As with the French chart above, other altitude-related factoids are presented as well.


The Darton chart was an obvious inspiration for this vivid 1836 French chart by Andriveau and Goujon (presented with metric measurements, of course). Rather than present the mountains in sequence, the mountains are arranged by region. What sets this chart apart is that it also shows the heights of waterfalls, something not typically seen in comparative maps of the day (or even now, really). The lack of knowledge of waterfalls outside of the European sphere is exposed here. France’s Grande Cascade de Gavarnie is shown at the top of the list here; today, according to the World Waterfall Database, Gavarnie ranks a scant 156th. As for the rivers, what a difference 13 years makes between this chart and the Darton chart. The Yenisey appears in third with the Nile down in sixth. The Brahmaputra also debuts here.


While this 1850 chart produced by New York’s John Tallis and Company is not the most visually stunning chart in this gallery by any means, it is a nice, all-encompassing chart incorporating the Western Hemisphere’s major waterfalls, islands, lakes, rivers, and mountains as known at the time. From a modern standpoint, it seems rather strange to have a diagram of the hemisphere’s largest islands without Greenland or the larger Canadian Arctic islands (at the time, neither Greenland nor the Canadian Arctic had yet to be fully explored and it was believed by many that the various land masses may have been a single unit, perhaps joined to a continent). Also jarring to modern eyes is the inclusion of New Zealand in the Western Hemisphere and the labelling of what we know as the South Island as ‘Middle Island’ (the ‘South Island’ appellation given to the far smaller Stewart Island/Rakiura). The mountains list features one of the first appearances of Mount Terror and Mount Erebus in ‘South Victoria’ (known today as Victoria Land, Antarctica) just nine years after it was first discovered. The Rocky Mountains also begin to get some recognition here, although most of the primary peaks still have yet to appear (the highest ones shown are mounts Brown and Hooker in modern Alberta) and most of the mighty peaks of the Pacific Northwest still aren’t shown.


Last autumn we looked at J.H. Colton’s maps of Africa from his 1855 Colton’s Atlas of the World. Also appearing in that atlas was the above chart comparing the major lakes and islands in each hemisphere. Notable here is the inclusion of the Black Sea as a lake, and the first appearance of one of Africa’s Great Lakes (a very roughly-drawn Lake Nyasa/Malawi). Also, none of New Guinea, Borneo, Sumatra, or any other islands in the East Indies are present in the menagerie of islands, yet Java is. Strange.


Colton’s 1855 chart of mountains and rivers, employing a design directly lifted from that of Darton more than three decades earlier. Given that many of the maps Colton used in his publications were purchased from other cartographers, there very likely could be more than just a superficial connection.

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2 thoughts on “A Gallery of Mid-19th Century Comparative Maps

  • Yay the comment option is back again! It's been missing for me the last few posts. It was really interesting to see the Comparative Size of Lakes and Islands to compare the area of voluminous Lake Baikal and the major lakes of the world.

    Loved your Aokigahara post. Freaky about Fuji's possible eruption coming in the next two years.

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