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Pennsylvania in Old Geography Books

by Harold Cramer

The reading of old geography books is one of the more interesting ways to enter the world of yesteryear. Most American geographies were prepared as textbooks for school instruction; a few were intended for the general reader; and a very few approached the scientific presentation characteristic of those from, say, Malte-Brun.[1] This discussion covers only geography books published in America, mostly as school textbooks, between circa 1790 to 1950 through illustrated examples that focus on Pennsylvania. There is at least one book for each decade. After 1950 the teaching of geography as a distinct and separate subject in schools began to decline and was largely gone by the 1970s.

The first American geography book is generally credited to Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) and his Geography Made Easy first published in 1784. Morse is probably the best known of any American geography author, closely followed by Samuel G. Goodrich (1793-1860) with his Peter Parley nom de plume. Both men are given short articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Morse was a preacher, or more properly a clergyman, a group that included many of the best educated; and he was one of the first to see that textbooks were sorely needed and do something about it. "To the young Masters and Misses throughout the United States, the following easy introduction to the useful and entertaining Science of Geography, compiled particularly for their use, is dedicated, with his warmest wishes for their early improvement in every thing that shall make them truly happy, by their sincere friend, Jedidiah Morse."[2] Samuel Griswold Goodrich was mostly self-educated and became a bookseller and publisher in New England. He started publishing geography books in the 1820s, first for other authors and then under the 'Peter Parley' pseudonym, and occasionally under his own name.

As the 1784 date of the Morse book indicates, geographies came late to the early American classroom. Instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic came first; geography was not considered important until after the Revolution. [3] Early textbooks had an importance not usually accorded them today. A review of old textbooks says the following:"Most authorities agree that in the United States the old textbooks in use at any particular place at any particular time largely constituted the course of study of its school. This was true because the teachers in the early days of our country were so meagerly trained and educated that their dependence on the textbooks was very strong, both for what and how to teach." [4] The first books, although intended for instruction, seem to be prepared more for the teacher than the pupil. The content was straight forward fact in small typeface and in a language perhaps above a young child: "Some of the stalactites, which in shape and transparency resemble icicles, are of a colour like sugar candy, and others resemble loaf sugar; but their beauty is much defaced by the country people."[5] There was little effort to develop relationships between people and topography, transportation networks, climate and culture, etc. that are the later norm, subsumed today under the term 'enviroment.' Perhaps the intent was for the teacher to provide that interpretation. Gradually books were written in language and presentation for the direct use of the pupil, with such titles as Primary, Intermediate, and Higher geography. "Two things are required of a good textbook: One of them is that it shall neither rise above nor fall below the intelligence of the pupil; that it shall be neither too technical nor too childish, but shall lead him steadily onward step by step, each lesson preparing him to understand the more difficult one which follows. The other is that the book shall meet fully the needs of the teacher; shall be a perfect educational tool for his use, and shall at the same time direct and advise him if he lacks experience. The best results are gained when the best text-book is put in the hands of the ablest teacher. " [6]

The professional training of teachers in Pennsylvania began with the Normal School Act of 1857, which established training schools throughout Pennsylvania. These came under direct state control with the School Code Act of 1911, and the normal schools evolved to state normal schools, then to state teacher colleges, and today to state universities as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Most of the elementary and high school teachers came through this system, and some of the geography textbooks were written by them. As to what the pupils thought of teachers, here is an amusing note from a circa 1900 student with fine handwriting.

This evolution depended upon both the education of teachers and the availability of books. The early books up to about 1850 were sexto (~6 x 4 inches) or octavo (~9 x 6 inches) size with a few hundred pages printed in letterpress relief on hand operated presses. Illustrations (if any) were relief wood engravings. The maps (if any) were folded sheets, separately printed from intaglio copper plates, and tipped in during binding. Some authors had no maps in the textbooks, but published a separate atlas. Press runs were perhaps a thousand books; so only a book for the teacher might be available in a classroom. After 1850, steam driven printing machinery entered the pressroom (as well as the bindery) and was adapted to the lithographic and wax engraving printing processes. Press runs could now extend into the hundreds of thousands driving down the cost of books and making one available for each student. The books approached quarto size (~12 x 9 inches) and the new printing methods allowed the inclusion of maps and illustrations with text on the same page. The period from 1850 to 1900 could be called the golden age of the American geography book. The production of books became so prolific that copies contained addendums for individual states; the earliest addendum seen for Pennsylvania is dated 1876. Towards and after 1900 the illustrations became printed photographs using halftone relief printing, and the maps had printed color. Eventually offset printing on rotary presses made press runs of millions possible.

The maps appearing in textbooks were for the instruction of children and ranged from the simple, at right, to standard atlas style, depending upon the source of the map. Prior to the automobile road map, these schoolbook maps were the earliest, and often the only, childhood exposure to maps. Even busy adults after leaving school might never see a map again. And to both the teachers teaching, and the publishers printing, simplicity was a virtue.

Besides maps, geographies prior to 1900 were one of the major printing forums for wood engravings, a now departed craft or art, depending on your view. Wood engraving was a relief printing method where the image is carved into the wood end grain. It developed right around 1800, and although used directly by many noted artists, it became a printing craft for the illustration of books and magazines. For large print runs, such as geography books, a metal cast of the engraving, called a stereotype, was usually made for actual printing; and the valuable engraving saved for later use. Printers would build up a stock supply and use them for later jobs. These engravings can be enjoyed for their artistic concept, like the coal mine scene at right; or for information, such as a view of the Johnstown riverfront above. Indeed, coming across scenes like these is one of the pleasures of reading these old geography books today.

Some authors were more prolific (more different books with more editions) than others. A review of geography books [7] prior to 1900 named the following authors as the most popular: Jedidiah Morse, Nathaniel Dwight, Jesse Olney, Peter Parley (i.e. S. G. Goodrich), Roswell Smith, S. Augustus Mitchell, Arnold Guyot, Sarah Sophie Cornell, James Monteith, Harper (the publisher), William Swinton, Appleton (the publisher), Jaques Redway & R. Hinman. After about 1875, the names of Frye, Maury, Warren and Roddy could be added. Books from all of these authors are included here along with others.

The coverage of old geography books is divided into three periods: circa 1790 to 1850; 1850 to 1900; and 1900 to circa 1950. The books shown are listed chronologically by printing date, not first edition date. The book cover is illustrated if legible and interesting, otherwise the title page is shown. The largest scale or most interesting map of Pennsylvania is illustrated (if a map is present), and text pages describing the state are presented. If the entire book is about the state, then only the Table of Contents may be shown. The printing methods used are mentioned, though sometimes an educated guess.

1790 to 1850

1850 to 1900

1900 to 1950

[1] Malthe-Conrad Bruun (1775-1826) was born in Denmark but worked in France. He took the name Conrad Malte-Brun and published his first books after the turn of the century, vis Precis de la geographie universelle, 1810. There were later American editions, i.e. Malte Brun's Universal Geography ...with additions and corrections by James G. Percival. Printed and Published by Samuel Walker, Boston 1834, which is shown here. His treatment of geography is viewed as something of a standard, at least for the nineteenth century.

[2] From the front of the third edition of Geography Made Easy by Jedidiah Morse, 1791.

[3] An interesting and amusing account of early school books up to about 1850 is Old Time Schools and School Books by Clifton Johnson, Macmillan 1904; reprinted by Dover in 1963. The emphasis is on New England, but the books described were widely used in the other states. There are two chapters on geographies, and the books mentioned are all represented here. Another more academic reference is History of American Schoolbooks by Charles Carpenter, University of Pennsylvania Press 1963. It also has a chapter on geographies.

[4] Nietz, John A., The evolution of American secondary school textbooks; rhetoric & literature, algebra, geometry, natural history (zoology), botany, natural philosophy (physics), chemistry, Latin and Greek, French, German & world history as taught in American Latin grammar school academies and early high schools before 1900. C. E. Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vt. 1966. On line at: http://digital.library.pitt.edu/n/nietz/ .

[5] From page 158 of the third edition of Geography Made Easy by Jedidiah Morse, 1791.

[6] Taken from the Preface of Rand-Mcnally Primary School Geography by James A. Bowen. Rand, McNally & Company. Chicago. Revised Edition 1901.

[7] Nietz, John A., Old textbooks: spelling, grammar, reading, arithmetic, geography, American history, civil government, physiology, penmanship, art, music, as taught in the common schools from colonial days to 1900. University of Pitsburgh Press 1961. On line at: http://digital.library.pitt.edu/n/nietz/ .

Copyright 2009 by Harold Cramer. All rights reserved
Revised October 2013.


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