The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Engaging in Popular Geography


Eighteenth Century Pocket Globe


 One of the most significant aspects of geography that Europeans found particularly intriguing were maps.  Maps were important because they allowed Europeans to see the foreign lands without a narrative to control the story of the geography.  Europeans displayed this interest in maps in many ways.  Sometimes, Europeans found ways to employ the use of maps in board games.  In these board games, players would travel across the globe by rolling dice and hopefully ending up back in a European country.  Europeans also found ways to carry maps with them in the form of geography cards or pocket globes. 


Colored map of North and South America

One of the most important ways Europeans engaged in geography was by washing maps.  Washing maps was another way of saying coloring maps.  Many Europeans would purchase black and white printed versions of maps and color them as a way of learning about geography.  Most of the time, people followed a strict color code to fill in their maps.  For example, red indicated major cities, blue indicated coastlines, and brown signified mountains or hills.  Also, for a large fee, some Europeans would buy maps and hire someone to color the maps for them.  These maps were interesting to Europeans because, not only did they help them understand the geography better, but also it maps usually contained images of people and animals as well. 


Cabinets of Curiosity

Europeans were extremely interested in reading about and seeing pictures of explorers’ voyages.  However, these images became even more interesting species that were the subject of travel narratives were physically brought back to Europe.  Many explorers started collections of their own for the sake of learning.  These collectors were typically referred to as entrepreneurs (Huxley 88).  Also, many wealthy Europeans started collections just for the sake of collecting.  These people were usually referred to as virtuosos (Huxley 88).  Both types of collectors typically created cabinets of curiosity as a place to display their collections.  At first, these collections were typically for private viewings.  However, as collecting became more popular, public collections became more accessible (Huxley 91).  These collections typically contained two different types of items: naturalia or artificialia.  Naturalia were specimen from nature such as plants or animals (Bleichmar 20).  Artificialia were items that were man made such as weapons (Bleichmar 20). 


Some historians argue that cabinets of curiosity actually tell us how little eighteenth century Europeans knew about geography.  For example, most items in cabinets of curiosity were accompanied by descriptions of the object.  However, most of the time, the description of the location from which the object came was usually incorrect or far off (Bleichmar 28).  It is also important to note that the cabinets were much more important as a whole, rather than focusing on individual objects.  Usually, the collectors arranged the items strategically to create a narrative for the viewers of the collection (Bleichmar 30).   

Works Cited

Huxley, Robert.  “Challenging the dogma: Classifying and Describing the Natural   World” and “Natural History Collections and their Collectors” in Enlightenment: Discovering the World of the Eighteenth-Century,” 70-91.  London: British Museum Press, 2003. 

Bleichmar, Daniela.  “Seeing the World in a Room: Looking at Exotica in Early Modern     Collections” in Collecting Across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World, 134-154.  Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 

Engaging in Popular Geography