Historical Maps and What They Teach Us

Because I don't enjoy shopping, I rarely buy souvenirs on my trips abroad. Yet two years ago, while browsing the stacks of a used bookstore in St. Andrews, Scotland, I happened across a small volume with a faded red cover that I couldn't bear to leave behind. Plus, £4.50 hardly seemed extravagant given that I'd paid £3.80 for a pint of beer and a mug of black coffee the night before.

Published in 1928 by Methuen & Co. Ltd. of London, The Fjords and Folk of Norway is a unique combination of travel guide, social history, and encyclopedia. It was peppered with 43 images photographed and captioned by the author Samuel J. Beckett, and to my delight, included a two-color, fold-out map of a country the preface confidently described as "a land in every way ideal for holiday travel." Given the theme for this year's Geography Awareness Week, I thought it deserved a mention here.

As readers of this blog already know, I can get a bit nerdy when it comes to maps. Even so, I'd argue that The Edinburgh Geographical Institute's precise cartography is interesting for a couple of different reasons. First of all, the scale shows distances in British Statue Miles, Kilometres, and Norwegian Miles—a unit of measure I wasn't familiar with. Secondly, the large scale inset of the great fjord region offers an informative lesson in how physical geography and population density determine transportation infrastructure. By studying the railway, road, and steamboat routes, it's possible to accurately infer that the landscape is rugged and sparsely peopled. In fact, about two-thirds of Norway is mountainous and in 1925, the population was only 2,772,414. Today this Scandinavian nation has about 4.6 million citizens, many of whom still rely on boats as a swift means of North-South travel.

Finally, I found it somewhat curious that the mapmakers also included an inset of historic Bergen, gateway to the fjord region. Lacking enough detail to be useful for visitors, it's informative nonetheless, with elevations for a few of the surrounding mountains and an attempt to indicate the growth of the city beyond its commercial center.

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