Geotagging in 1897: a 'postal memory map' of Washtenaw County
Littered with tiny, charming pictures and colored lines showing railroad routes, the map was a mnemonic device meant to help people pass the qualifying examination to work for the railroad mail service.
The pictures helped the test-takers remember the stations along each route.
Examining the Washtenaw portion of the map, one can see a picture of a bridge over water near Bridgewater, and an image of a four-story-high mill near Del-“high” Mills. Near Salem, a ship image refers to the Massachusetts town famous for witch trials and clipper ships.
A horse looms over Dexter, and alludes to the Seabiscuit of the 1860s. The famous racehorse Dexter broke two world records in 1867. Scribner’s magazine called him “the horse of the century.” The railroad clerks studying the map before the exam in the 1890s would have recognized this icon.
The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway appears as a yellow squiggle. In the northeast corner of the county the Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Western railroad passes through. The green line to the southeast marks a route shared by the Wabash, Flint, and Pere Marquette, the Detroit-Mackinac, and the Chicago-West Michigan Railway railway companies.
This map was introduced to the author by a local history buff, who noticed some interesting drawings that he mentioned in an email.
"I don't know if there are any bars in Temperance today.” There are—it’s the author’s hometown.
He continued, “The other thing I noticed was a number of famous faces, e.g. Franklin and Grant for those cities. Other faces may have been famous at the time, but aren't now. For instance, Thomas, in north Oakland county, had
Quaint as it is, this map is remarkably similar to the varieties of digital map enhancements created today with such combinations of tools as Google maps, digital photos, textual comments, and GPS information.
This similarity also occurred to writer Alex Wright, the New York Times's director of user experience and product research and the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. In an article about postal memory maps on his blog, Mr. Wright wrote, “This seems like a good historical examplar for the kinds of things people are doing with social mapping these days: overlaying personal experience onto geographical maps, and in the process transforming the maps from static reference tools into living social documents.”
His 1897 Michigan postal memory map remains a living social document, communicating to modern readers its era’s famous horses, well-known musical figures, and old memes--and the endearing whimsy of a postal clerk a century ago.
Quoted material is reprinted with permission.
Laura Bien is the author of "Stud Bunnies and the Underwear Club: Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives," to be published this winter. She also writes the historical blog "Dusty Diary" and may be contacted at email@example.com.