Never an Atlas so Handsome

By February 6, 2013

First, a confession: I’m a stats dropout. It was the one course in college that I dropped. If someone had told me that it was something a historian actually should know, maybe I would have stuck with it (or maybe not). These days, I’m a dolt when it comes to sigma values and such, but I do love a good visualization of statistics. And if digitization and “big data” are the next frontiers in humanities research, then statisticians, especially those who can find compelling ways to visualize data, will find themselves in high demand.

Nowadays, data-crunching needs computers of mind-blogging speed and the results are enlivened with visualizations of breathtaking complexity and beauty (one of my favorites turns the NY subway schedule into a haunting musical map). But in the late 19th century, the U.S. government crunched monumental stacks of data, like those collected in the decennial census, using just paper and pencil, index cards and a whole bunch of person-hours — but nonetheless managed to make some of the most stunning data visualizations ever conceived. The “golden age” just may have been the successive publication of three big statistical atlases using information gathered in the 1870, 1880 and 1890 censuses, replete with gorgeous lithography and chock-full of Progressive social scientific hubris.

You can find all three online at the Library of Congress [1], but the display features and usability are not terrific. Fortunately, there’s, the brilliant creation of Jonathan Soma (an internet-age Renaissance man as near as I can tell [2]), a website which not only elegantly displays the atlases page by page, but presents all their unusually lovely visualizations, charts, graphs, and maps with full pan and zoom capability. Soma also blogs about some of the more interesting bits, like  lapping bar graphs, with wit and wry humor. And there’s a mind-boggling amount of data here – from agriculture and industry, to public health and mortality, settlement, race, religion, gender and marriage,work, immigration, voting behavior and much more.

I caught up with Soma by email this week, because I was so enthralled by the project and wanted to know how it got started, since it’s not affiliated with the Library of Congress or any academic institution. He explained that he was “originally looking for some information on the spread of immigrant communities around the turn of the century, and somehow stumbled on the census atlases. I figured they were more beautiful than anything I’d be able to crank out, so it’d be a service to mankind put them out there in an accessible format.” Soma mass-downloaded them, “ran then through some programs” and built the user interface.

There’s a lot to like about Handsome Atlas. It adds a common-sensical URL and tags for each image plate. The images can be super-zoomed to very high resolution using the mouse wheel or the +/- buttons. Although they don’t download from within the viewer, there are three different sizes for download in the right sidebar of every page. There’s a comments feature. Unfortunately, the atlases aren’t text-searchable that I could discover, because the pages are imaged as jpegs, not OCR-PDFs, but it’s fairly easy to navigate within the galleries for each atlas and locate what you’re interested in.

Sometimes an illustration just says it all. Like, there’s no better way than this map to show that the Great Migration hadn’t happened yet in 1890, or this one to show that a wave of new immigration had. Sometimes an illustration conveys nuances that a map wouldn’t, like this one (which looks like traveling salesman ribbon samples) to depict how many open pews there were in American churches in 1870. Mormonism shows up in some interesting ways in these volumes. Obviously, Mormons were highly concentrated geographically in these years. They voted distinctively within their region in the 1880 election. And by 1880 the migration of British-Isle converts to the Great Basin is obvious.

Handsome Atlas, in some ways, typifies the best of the emerging digital humanities – celebrating open-source access to high-quality sources and displaying them in a way that enhances their value without hiding them behind a paywall. Soma told me that he would love to collaborate on other digitization projects and help popularize some of these really interesting projects. I hope Handsome Atlas is just the first of many such interdisciplinary efforts.

How might you use this fabulous archive? Why would you send students here and for what kind of projects? How could you use it in your own research?



[1] 1870 Statistical Atlas of the United States, Francis A. Walker (1874); 1880 Scribner’s Statistical Atlas, Fletcher W. Hughes (1883); and 1890 Statistical Atlas of the United States, Henry Gannett (1898).

[2] He tweets @dangerscarf  and is the co-founder of the Brooklyn Brainery, which seems to be the hub of New York’s interdisciplinary geeky maker culture, which makes me ask: why isn’t there one of these in my neighborhood?

Article filed under Cultural History Digital Humanities Web Reviews


  1. I chose my major in college partly because it meant I wouldn’t have to do a single math course after high school. Sad, but true. Luckily it worked out pretty well.

    Comment by Saskia — February 6, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  2. Tona, thanks for this. In some ways, the emphasis to statistical analysis seems to be a return to the economic and social history of the 1970s. I’m thinking of Fogel and Engelman’s “Time on the Cross.” It’s also something that hasn’t quite infiltrated my department, which is still focused on cultural and literary analysis.

    Comment by Amanda — February 6, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

  3. Tona,

    This is a wonderful highlight of an amazing resource. Thanks for sharing. It’s websites like this that get me excited for the future of digital scholarship.

    Comment by Robin — February 6, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

  4. Tona, I am really glad you posted about this because many of the map visualizations will be helpful for a class I will (hopefully) teaching about the history of American regional identity.

    I haven’t taken a math class since junior year of high school. Eek.

    Comment by NatalieR — February 6, 2013 @ 9:02 pm

  5. Fantastic, Tona. I’m so glad there are websites like this; makes being a historian in the 21st century a lot easier.

    On a related note, I’m so glad I wasn’t trained when the field was obsessed with quantitative history. I would have never survived.

    Comment by Ben P — February 6, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

  6. I absolutely love these digitized resources, and have used a number in the past (notably David Rumsey’s historical map collection and the papers at the Gilder Lehrman Institute). Kudos to those who devote their time & resources to constructing and sharing these with the public, and thanks Tona for sharing this one!

    Comment by Nate R. — February 6, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

  7. “lapping bar graphs” activates the not-safe-for-work filters for me, I suspect on the basis of that phrase in the URL. I can only imagine what lurks there.

    Comment by smb — February 10, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  8. Oh dear, Sam. It just means that the bar graph doubles back on itself to show a particularly high value without extending the scale. Kind of odd, haven’t seen it anywhere else, a quirky feature of several of the charts in these books. But sounds like googling for it is a bad idea.

    Comment by Tona H — February 11, 2013 @ 11:40 am


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