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A Brief History of Folding Maps

There are over 400 maps of London produced between the late 16th Century and 1850. Virtually all of them are very scarce. If you look closely, each map tells its own unique story of eras gone by.

Although some are rare, antique maps in general are fairly readily obtained. However, folding maps laid on cloth were practical items made for use on the open road and, as a result, they had a hard life and their mortality rate was high. They were also very expensive. It follows that being affordable to only a very few, most folding maps were not produced in large numbers. Therefore original folding maps are very rare and valuable.

Old Folding Maps


Old Lithograph Reproductions for saleBy 1700 London was one of the greatest cities in the world. It’s population of over 550,000 dwarfed the next most populous English city, Norwich, by a factor of 15 to 1. The city was, however, a very dangerous and unhealthy place. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and disease led to more people dying each year than were born. With contaminated drinking water, the streets acting as open sewers and the choking atmosphere, diseases such as Cholera, Smallpox and Tuberculosis were widespread. Not least among the average Londoner’s worries was the fact that there were over 250 capital offences. Life expectancy varied from the early 20’s in the poorest Boroughs to maybe the mid 30’s in the wealthier parts of town.

By 1800 the population had risen to the extent that London was probably the first city in the world with over 1,000,000 citizens. However the average life expectancy across London was still only 30 while in rural England it had risen to over 40. The population could only be maintained by immigration, so despite the dangers, migrants flocked to the city from all over the country, lured by wages at least double those elsewhere.

Our journey starts in 1707 with a map that shows London still not much bigger than the area within its ancient walls. Cramped within these confines was a population of maybe 550,000 or so. As today, London was a city of migrants, initially mainly from the British Isles but increasingly as time went by it became a haven for those looking for a better life or fleeing persecution from all over the world. By 1850 the census revealed a city of over 3 million souls, 1 million of whom were born elsewhere. The migrants brought with them the idea that skills played a major part in making London the largest and richest city the world had ever seen. The city’s banks controlled more assets than much of the world combined. This seething mass of people needed to be able to travel around without losing their way and the wealthy especially did not want to get lost in the crime infested slums of London’s back streets.

Old Folding Maps

Turnpike Roads

Old Lithograph Reproductions for saleWith the development of the turnpike roads, long distance travel became more feasible and comfortable thus the need for accurate and detailed maps.

The first turnpike was erected near Ware in Hertfordshire in 1663 and by 1700 there were 17 turnpike trusts. In 1706 Parliament enacted the Turnpike Trust Act and from then on the turnpike system rapidly increased. In the mid to late 18th century improved surveying and road building techniques, by engineers such as John ‘Tar’ McAdam, led to there being between 40 and 50 trusts set up each year.

The Trustees were given the right to charge tolls in return for maintaining the roads and erecting signs and Milestones etc. With the coming of the railways in the 1830’s long distance road travel decreased and the last trusts were set up in 1835.

Old Folding Maps

Folding Maps

With the coming of the turnpike roads the villages surrounding London were linked together and as the city rapidly expanded accurate maps again, were essential for travel around the city. They had to be robust, a purely paper map would soon disinter grate with constant opening and closing.

Dissecting the map and laying it down on linen or calico greatly extended the maps life, a slip case being provided for further protection. Nevertheless they had a very high mortality rate and as London expanded they soon became out of date and were often thrown away. In other parts of the world, such as India, it was military considerations that drove the production of maps.

Old Folding Maps

How Folding Maps Were Made

The first stage in the production of a map was the surveying. This was done by triangulation using high points such a church steeples and then physically walking the ground and measuring the distances between the points using chains or measuring wheel of 8.25 feet in circumference. The chain as a unit of length was introduced in c.1620 and is 22 yards long, there being 80 chains in a mile. The surveying often took several years, as in the case of Greenwood’s map of London surveyed between the years 1824 - 1826.

Map makers often borrowed from previous cartographers, sometimes resulting in mistakes being repeated over a number of years and in various maps. Equally there are no standard pronunciation or spelling so place names often varied slightly from map to map.

Having surveyed the area and preparing hand drawn maps printing plates had to be made. The hand drawn map was given to the egraver who by using a tool known as a burin cut lines in a copper plate. The engravers were highly skilled craftsman who had to engrave everything in reverse. This was slow and meticulous work and the engraving often took many months. On completion the copper plate was inked by hand. Large scale maps would require several plates to be made.

From conception it took a great deal of time, effort and money before the first map was pulled from the copper plate. Not a few cartographers went bankrupt. Many of the maps were so expensive only the rich could afford to buy them. For example, Assheton’s map of the Holy Land would have cost somewhere in the region of £1500 in today’s terms if the value of money was calculated on the average wage.

Old Folding Maps

Slip Cases

Slip cases were used to protect the map and prolong its life. When originally published folding maps were expensive but they were primarily a practical item made to be used on the open road. Many of the map makers of the 18th and 19th centuries continued the book binding tradition and used marbled paper to cover their cases, sometimes waxing them to make them more water resistant.

Old Folding Maps
 Product Information
We specialize in supplying original maps and reproductions of the rarer maps, all dissected and hand laid onto 100% natural cotton cloth. All of them are supplied in handmade slipcases covered in marbled paper taken from our collection of original papers dating back to circa 1700.
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