The Rise and Fall of the National Atlas in the Twentieth Century

The Rise and Fall of the National Atlas in the Twentieth Century

Power, State and Territory

By John Rennie Short

Many countries produced an official national atlas in the twentieth century. This book examines these national atlases as an intriguing window into the connections between science, state, territory and power.

Paperback, 182 Pages


April 2024

£25.00, $35.00

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About This Book

The publication of the National Atlas of Finland in 1899 marks the beginning of the era of the modern national atlas. It is a period that coincides neatly with the twentieth century. The modern national atlas mirrors and embodies some of the important themes of this turbulent century, including the complex connections between nation, state and territory, the rise of state-sponsored science; the growth of nation-states; the geography of biopolitics. 

Between 1900 and 2000, more than seventy countries produced a national atlas, an official or quasi-official rendering of the nation-state in maps and accompanying text. A useful working definition of a national atlas is “a generally comprehensive, officially sanctioned single-country atlas.” This book considers the reasons behind and characteristics of this state-sponsored cartographic explosion. The changing form of the national atlas provides an intriguing window into the connections between science, state, territory and power.

The primary material for this study is a close reading of thirty-seven of these national atlases from countries across the world. They represent a wide range of countries from rich to poor, progressive to regressive, and capitalist to communist. In total, these atlases provide a range of different state arrangements and national experiences. 


“A highly significant work not only for cartographic studies but also for historians of nationalism. Properly wide-ranging and clearly argued, this important work deserves much attention.” – Jeremy Black, author of Maps and History. 

“The book is an engaging discussion of the history and the histories of national atlases around the world. By using abundant visual material, the author delivers a cartographic tour-de-force to point out connections between nation-state, territory, and maps in the twentieth century.” –Jorn Seemann, Professor of Geography, Ball State University, USA.

“This compelling new history shows how nations used the power of maps to advance their interests. Short’s wide-ranging survey spans the globe in an era of rising and falling empires, global warfare, and expanding economies. It reveals how modernizing states pictured themselves to the world with cartography.” – Dr. S. Max Edelson, Department of History, University of Virginia, USA.

Short (Univ. of Maryland) explores how various aspects of national atlases—from the classic representation of physical space to the more recent theme of biopolitics—help show what the governing bodies of those nations felt was important about their citizens. His discussions of the significant roles that atlases play in nations' identities and what national atlases show about the state of the world at particular historical moments are especially interesting. It makes effective use of illustrations to explain various aspects of national atlases and is overall logically organized and readable. An excellent introduction to national atlases and their place in history. Highly recommended. – W. J. Rafter, West Virginia University Libraries; Choice

In this path-breaking, clearly written and altogether delightful read, John Rennie Short utilizes a critical-theory approach to address the production and content of national atlases as instruments of statecraft—interrogating ‘connections between nation-state, science, territory and power’.[…] With this account, which is at times perhaps too breezy and informal but always engaging, Short provides what I personally hope will become a provocative statement on national atlases. – Imago Mundi, The International Journal for the History of Cartography

The book clearly delivers a review of how cartography has been used to show how states see themselves in the world. Maps, charts, and figures have been used to make comprehensible truly vast amounts of societal data—data that is ever more detailed and expanding. The author, to his credit, does an excellent job in reviewing the effectiveness of the presentation of data via these techniques— The Portolan

To present a balanced perspective, the author selected national atlases from countries that ranged from quite rich to relatively poor. The author was also careful to select national atlases from both capitalist and communist countries in the review ... includes plenty of history and insights covering politics and social history of the twentieth century. Throughout the text, the author has included many colour illustrations from the pages of atlases being discussed. I highly recommend this book as a fine addition to any academic library collection focused on cartography and world political history—ACMLA Bulletin

Author Information

John Rennie Short is a professor in the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has published widely in a range of journals and is the author of fifty books. 


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Table of Contents

List of Figures; List of Tables; Acknowledgments; 1. Introduction, A Century of Nationalism, The Main Arguments, Structure of the Book; 2. The Early National Atlas, A Cartographic Explosion , The Early National Atlas in England and France; 3. Cartographic Anxieties and the Emergence of the Modern National Atlas, The Modern National Atlas in Latin America, From Anxieties to Certainties, Remaining Anxieties; 4. Cartographic Ruptures and the National Atlas, Cartographic Declarations of Independence, Revolutionary Ruptures, A Transect across the Ruptures; 5. National Atlas, Global Discourses, The Global Framing of the National, The Language of the Atlas: Text, The Language of the Atlas: Maps; 6. The Physical World of the National Atlas, Origins, Science, State and the National Atlas, National Imaginaries, Contested Discourses of the National Atlas; 7. The Social World of the National Atlas, Social Statistics, Statistical Atlases, Social Categories; 8. The End of the National Atlas?, Information Overload, New Technologies, National Atlas as Digital Portal, Toward a Polyphonic Participatory Atlas; Notes; Appendix: National Atlas Bibliography; Index 


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