“Universal history, as a science, is great in itself, great in its consequences on human conduct and happiness; and, at this moment, particularly important to the citizens of our republic” (Willard, 3)
Emma Willard, 1787-1870, founded the Troy Female Seminary in 1821, which was later renamed the Emma Willard School in 1895 in her honor. As a strong activist for female higher education, Willard spent much of her life as an educator and wrote several textbooks, focusing specifically on geography and history. These textbooks which include titles such as A System of Universal Geography: On the Principles of Comparison and Classification (1827) and Universal History in Perspective (1854), the latter being the one that I am more interested in terms of historic visualizations. One of her many influences on education included the practice of having children draw maps in order to learn geography (“19th Century Maps by Children”). We can see this pedagogical practice throughout her textbooks as many of them include quite imaginative visualizations of history and geography as it is situated within time and space rather than presenting this information in linear timelines.
The visualization that struck me as being one of the more unique and imaginative images of history is the main visualization in her textbook Universal History in Perspective. In it, she begins with an image, drawn in perspective, of a Greek temple with each pillar labeled with either a date or a moment in history. The floor, being obscured somewhat by the perspective of the image, lists the names of the countries in existence at the time of print. She calls this image the Temple of Time.
While this image itself is quite a unique way to represent all of history, the visualization I am more concerned with is what Willard calls, the “floorplan” of the Temple of Time, which is merely the frontispiece of the textbook. In this sense, we have a three-dimensional object she has render and the two-dimensional recreation (with perspective) of that so that we can view it in greater detail. She explains in the text, “Here is addressed to the eye, on a small scale, a plan strictly scientific, (perspective being an exact science,) which is to the whole of history, as it exists in time, what a small map of the world, with its few lines of latitude and longitude, is to the same science as it exists in place” (Willard, 3). Her visualization is certainly situated within the historical conventions of the time as this is a very Western-centric version of history excluding many of the known nations and peoples that historians would have had knowledge of including American Indians as well as a focus on Asia. In fact, this visualization is focused more on a history of the United States as it is situated in a broader understanding of history that begins with the creation story borrowed from the Christian perspective and situates historical eras based on the birth of Christ.
While I will go into a more detailed analysis of this image later, this contextualization should help us understand some of the rhetorical choices and visual tropes she includes. Ultimately, this image was drawn as such to help students understand a more complex version of history and see how history depends on both space and time. Her goal was to provide a more engaging and rich teaching tool to accompany a 500-page text of history. She further explains, “If but few cities are set down on such a map, whoever understands geography, having any other cities given with its latitude and longitude, can refer it to its true situation on the map, and thus know its position relative to other places. Such will our Temple of Time be, in respect to the dates of events to those who understand it; and persons already acquainted with history comprehend at a glance “ (3). Even here, we see her influence of a geography teacher and the benefits she sees in that discipline as it applies to a student of history. Ultimately, what I would like to focus on are the design principles, as set out by Tufte, and the rhetorical choices and conventions she uses to present quote a robust about of history and information.
Analysis of Picture of Nations, or Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire
“The painter allows to objects in space less and less room upon his canvass, as those objects recede into the distance. Such is equally the order of nature in regard to objects as they exist in time. Yet the mountain which is distant must have more room in the picture than the dark valley that lies near” (Willard, iv).
Principle 1: Comparisons
In this visualization, Willard is comparing the progression of nations and empires from the time of the Christian creation story to the progression of what she calls “Universal History,” which is time divided into the Ancient, Middle, and Modern periods with dates, and what she calls “Ancient History,” which is divided into periods based on specific events in history such as the birth of Christ. We can see this comparison clearly as she treats the timelines as points of latitude that spread across the visualization of nations. Another comparison she invites is also the comparison between “universal history” and “ancient history” to show how events in ancient history construct our understanding of universal history and periods in that. Another comparison is within the images of the nations and the size to show the contrasting sizes of the nations. Since this is drawn in perspective, we can also compare the size and situation of the nations compared to it’s path through history and where it begins as our eyes can follow the paths literally back through time. Again, rhetorically this argues that history is situation not only linearly across but also in relation to space and time.
Principle 2: Causality, Mechanisms, Structure, Explanation
The cause and effect that we can see in this visualization is the effect of certain points in history to the path and size of the nations. While she does not include much data, she does show the leaders of the nations at the time as well as some key events for her in history that are not shown as clearly on the timeline. Specifically, we can see, through the use of highlighted text and literally beacons of light on the image, the events she thinks are important and consequently lead to the creation of the United States. We can see the bight beacon of the birth of Christ as well as the Reformation. Columbus is highlighted and so is the beginning of the independence of the US from Great Britain.
Another interesting feature is the perspective and shading of the paths of each nations and how they can flow into others. Here, without much text, we see the relation of nations to each other and how some can get obscured by others. Perspective, shading, and size all try to show cause and effect here.
Principle 3: Multivariate Analysis
Willard’s map is certainly multivariate in that she is attempting to show a universal history. We can see such variables such as cause and effect, relation of nations, relations events in history to the start of various eras, time shown as both specific and centuries, as well as the variables as they relate to the nations and the leaders. In other words, she wants to include all of the variables that lead to her version of history.
Principle 4: Integration of Evidence
Willard craftily integrates her evidence through a keen use of perspective and relation to her earlier image of the Temple of Time. We see how she uses this structure of a temple and its columns to create structure to the image as well as an organizing patterns. Not only this, but she is using a sort of organic and flowing image of the “floor plan” to map out complex histories. While she can’t include specific evidence because of the size of data she wants to represent, she can use a familiar cartography trope of latitude lines to relate her evidence. Also, visually, she has created a hierarchical structure within this evidence to show her conception of history. Even though this is done in perspective, the two-dimensional image creates a triangle with the creation of the world as a nebulous cloud at the top from which all of history flows from. These are clear, rhetorical choices that she explains in great detail in the introduction of her textbook.
Principle 5: Documentation
Documentation on the image itself is limited since, as she suggests, this is to accompany her textbook in which she more fully explains this history. However, based on the structure and her inclusion of certain historical events, she establishes credibility through the vast knowledge of history and historical dates she includes. The dates stand as fact and are unquestioned, even as we now question this version of a western-centric, Christian-centric version of history. This visualization dates the history revisionists, so it doesn’t really get questioned.
Her explanation of the visualization also works to establish her credibility. She writes, “That events apparently diminish when viewed through ‘the vista of departed years’ is matter of common place remark. Applying the principle to a practical purpose, we have here brought before the eye, at one glance, a sketch of the whole complicated subject of Universal History. Names of nations and a few distinguished individuals are found in the Ancient; the most distinguished sovereigns in the Middle, and of all the sovereigns of the principle kingdoms, in Modern History.” Consider this as her bibliography and explanation of this teaching device.
Principle 6: Content Counts Most of All
Again, since this image is found inside her textbook, she doesn’t include much biographical information on the image itself other than to say it is to accompany her textbook. We read in her textbook the motivation and purpose of this image and her pedagogical approach. She explains, “The truth appears to be, that history cannot be well understood, unless the reader can, with the one method, trace every great nation by itself through all its most important changes, and within the other, conceive himself placed in any of the most noted periods of time, and glance through the whole range of contemporary events” (Willard, iv). The content of her textbook is not understood in the manner that she wants to teach it without the aid of this illustration that hopes to show the student the complexity of history. Granted, looking back at this image, we see her rhetorical choices she makes within these principles of design that give the dominant view of history and, most importantly, we see the rhetorical choices made by what is lacking in this image. However, this shouldn’t affect our appreciation of this image and the relevance of it as a visual teaching aid and part of a unique pedagogical approach. While it might be dated, it is certainly a rich and robust visualization that not only gives of a historical view of teaching methods but also an understanding of how educators where trying to visualize a growing globalization within a complex nature of history. Just as Emma Willard, who at the time was known and respected as a education and activist, tells us, “Universal history, as a science, is great in its consequences, as it forms the first study of the politician. No wise man presumes to form conclusions concerning the future destiny of nations, without first acquiring a knowledge of the past” (v).
“19th Century Maps by Children.” David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Cartography Associates, 7 Jan. 2010. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.
Willard, Emma. Universal History in Perspective. 12th ed. Cincinnati: AS Barnes & Co, 1854.