Mapping the American way: Geographical knowledge and the development of the United States, 1890–1950

Alex Checkovich, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation is an environmental history of American cartography. It focuses on a family of applied field scientists who mapped the natural and economic landscapes of their diverse and rapidly developing nation. The geographical knowledge they produced had a dual character. It both facilitated the on-going development of the American landmass, and was itself a concrete development of field scientists' work within particular places, environments, and regions. From 1890 to 1950, a distinctive historical-geographical frontier for this kind of knowledge opened up which the cohort of mappers learned to exploit. The knowledge they created still informs our pictures of American resources, limits, and diversity. The dissertation makes three related historiographical contributions. First, it draws attention to an important kind of fieldwork. Mapping's constitutive practices (traversing, measuring, bounding, classifying) have their own distinctive histories that have gone largely ignored. These practices were in fact career strategies with their own virtues and pitfalls that grew apparent over time and in different places. Second, the dissertation fills a gap in the social history of cartography. Most histories of American cartography focus on the famous expeditions of the nineteenth century, not on the twentieth century's explosion in scientific and commercial maps. Similarly, most focus on maps' aesthetics, not on the environmental and institutional conditions of their production and use. Treating maps as technologies, as specialized social tools with origins in specific physical places, illuminates these neglected themes. Finally, the dissertation makes a contribution to our notions of public works, applied science, and development in general. Numerous spatial transformations unfolded upon American landscapes in this period; road networks, suburbs, airports, and planned regional developments were only a few. Intensive, detailed maps were a crucial component of this historical-geographical package. Indeed, land-use mapping itself evolved as a distinctive form of land use suited to environmental conditions in the post-frontier republic. The knowledge embodied in such maps, while always contingent upon local practices and places, actually played a basic role in the nation's physical and economic development.

Subject Area

Science history|American history|Geography|Geography

Recommended Citation

Checkovich, Alex, "Mapping the American way: Geographical knowledge and the development of the United States, 1890–1950" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3137991.