Map Monsters, Ahoy

ArticleFeaturing a few of the creatures from the depths of our collections

Rachel Mead
June 2, 2021
517 words

On many of the illustrated maps in our collection, there live creatures from the deep. Cartographers of the past often inserted these animals as decoration, space-filler for open ocean, and to represent the mystery and romance of uncharted areas. Here’s a small selection of these map monsters. To see many more, check out this map set full of monsters!

World Wonders

Ernest Dudley Chase. World wonders. 1939.

Ernest Dudley Chase. World wonders. 1939.

This 1939 Chase map is a pictorial map of famous sites from around the world. It includes this image of a sea monster in the Sargasso Sea, with its very own caption: “in the old days,” it says, “many myths grew out of the strange life that exists here, monsters, derelicts, etc.” The scaly creature in question is looking on cheerfully as a nearby ship appears to be sinking.

Old Friends, New World

Edward Everett Henry and Washington Square Book Shop (New York, N.Y.). The new map of the world. 1928.

Edward Everett Henry and Washington Square Book Shop (New York, N.Y.). The new map of the world. 1928.

Some of the monsters on maps are actually real! Or at least, based on real animals. Here’s an example from a double hemisphere world map from the 1920’s. This prehistoric creature is in stark contrast to the other images on the map, which represent modern achievements in transportation, including Columbus’s landing, Lindbergh’s flight, and the Citroën African Expedition of 1923. There’s also a great merman if you check out the whole map!

Elemental Creatures

Frederik de Wit and Hendrick Doncker. Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula. 1660.

Frederik de Wit and Hendrick Doncker. Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula. 1660.

A common illustration around the borders of a map, especially in the 17th century, were depictions of the four elements. Often, “Aqua” includes a swimming monster. That’s true in this case; “Ignis,” or fire, also involves some fire-breathing dragons that are worth checking out. Earth and air have more run-of-the-mill animals in their illustrations. This map is generally just very beautiful and detailed, including other classic map tropes like zodiac signs, the sun, garlands of fruits and flowers, and much more.

Castors curieux

Henri Abraham Chatelain. Carte tres curieuse de la Mer du Sud, contenant des remarques nouvelles et tres utiles non seulement sur les ports et iles de cette mer. 1719.

Henri Abraham Chatelain. Carte tres curieuse de la Mer du Sud, contenant des remarques nouvelles et tres utiles non seulement sur les ports et iles de cette mer. 1719.

These are real animals doing something that looks suspiciously fake! They’re beavers on a mission at Niagara Falls, industriously building their dams. Whether the cartographer actually thought this is how beavers operated (standing on their hind legs, hauling wood in single file), or if he was aware of the fantastical nature of his illustration, this is a beautiful little vignette of an imagined life in Upstate NY and Canada.

Government Stuff

Charles Turzak, Henry T. Chapman, Houghton Mifflin Company, and Tudor Press. An illustrated map of Chicago. 1931.

Charles Turzak, Henry T. Chapman, Houghton Mifflin Company, and Tudor Press. An illustrated map of Chicago. 1931.

This illustrated map of Chicago has so much on it to talk about, but one thing is its cute talking monsters. In this scene, a man drinking in a rowboat encounters an encouraging and friendly sea monster, and is shocked because he “thought he was drinking government stuff,” which may refer to non-alcoholic beer produced during Prohibition. More on the rest of this map on our Instagram.

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