A ‘prairie parallelogram covered with glamorous history’ — F.A. Cooper’s vivacious mid-century pictorial map of historic Kansas.
Historic Kansas is one of the era’s most innovative and impacting pictorial maps, a cornucopia of historical information relayed through countless charming vignettes across the entire face of both map and state.
It is one of the most interesting and informative maps produced during the mid-century craze for pictorial cartography and still stands as one of the most innovative thematic maps of America in the 20th century. Among the ubiquitous historical references adorning the map in vignette form, we find key events in the history of North America and the United States and local context-specific events that spoke especially to a Kansan audience.
This incredible celebration of Kansas’ long and complex history was drawn by Frank A. Cooper, and published by The Weekly Kansas Star in fitting bi-chrome tones of black and parchment yellow. Cooper was from Kansas and worked as an illustrator during the 1940s. He compiled this map in a rather distinct manner, setting it aside from most other pictorial maps of the era. To draw upon the experiences, histories, and identities of the actual people living in Kansas, the committee behind the map asked every community within the state to contribute by devising ‘something of interest to instruct and entertain’ the onlooker.
Once the selection of events had been finalized, Cooper was charged with bringing all of these many stories together in a grand cartographic scheme, highlighting the state’s history and diversity. He accomplished this initiative through ubiquitous illustration and elaborate labeling. The outcome was not only a packed and highly educational chart but an honest endeavor to include all the state’s many communities at a time when such inclusivity hardly was the norm.
At the bottom of the map, the publishers refer to this chart as a ‘prairie parallelogram covered with glamorous history,’ and this is in many ways an appropriate characterization, for one can hardly recognize any of the state’s physiographical features, just as state borders remain hidden by the dense underbrush of pictorial content. Ultimately, one is left with the impression of a landscape abounding in both story and history and playing a key role in America’s development trajectory from the beginning. It is a celebration of belonging and identity, of pains and gains, and of a nation that slowly was coming to terms with itself while the Old World was burning.
Context is Everything
Cooper’s map of his home state was originally commissioned by the Coronado Cuarto Centennial Commission, which had been set up in 1935 to organize the celebrations associated with the 500th anniversary of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition to locate and subjugate the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola for Spain. Coronado was never succesful in this regard, but his expedition stands as the first significant European venture into the American Southwest. Its legendary motivation fostered many other inland expeditions when virtually nothing was known about the North American interior.