Iconic America: The United States Map as a National Symbol

September 11, 2012 to February 28, 2013

Highlights from the Fondersmith Collection of Cartographic Ephemera

John Fondersmith, guest curator

The symbolic use in modern American culture of the outline map of the United States of America is so widespread and pervasive that it can truly be called “iconic.” This exhibition reveals the manner in which the outline map of the U.S.A. has pervaded our modern culture, from sporadic instances in the 1800s to the great variety in the 1900s of political cartoons and presidential campaign memorabilia, jewelry, puzzles and games, book and magazine covers, and mass-produced souvenirs. Unless otherwise noted, the materials displayed here have been loaned by John Fondersmith from his personal collection of what he calls ushapia.

Blumberg United Shapes 2012

Jonathan Blumberg, United States of Ushapia (2012). Osher Collection.

The over one hundred components in this collage constitute a representative cross-section of the artifacts in the Fondersmith Collection. Like Americans of different nationality, race or culture, the components are unified by the common element of the country’s outline while retaining their individual characteristics. The collage itself was created by Jonathan Blumberg during the summer of his junior year in college; his interest in maps has been greatly influenced by his grandparents, Peggy and Harold Osher, whose passion for art and history is manifested in their cartographic collection, now housed in the Osher Map Library.


Americans began to search for symbols to represent their cultural unity even in the colonial era. With the Revolution and the War of 1812, the use of nationalistic symbols for the new country proliferated to encompass the eagle, the flag, Lady Liberty, and Uncle Sam. Use of this patriotic quartet was quite unrestrained and they were used on all manner of everyday things, from pottery to pictures, carpentry to clothing. A persistent backdrop to American culture, and increasingly mass-produced, these patriotic icons have especially flourished throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century in times both of war and of the Centennials that celebrate U.S. history. Their use most recently surged in response to the events of September 11th, 2001.

“Logo maps” ~ outline maps of a country that can be used in conjunction with other imagery to help create a sense of national identity ~ appear occasionally in the nineteenth century U.S.A., and then mostly for individual states. The modern boundary of the continental U.S.A. was achieved with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, yet there remained a popular sense that future growth was still possible until the aftermath of World War I.

Although a late recruit to the pantheon of patriotic symbols, the logo map of the U.S.A. has become a potent symbol of Americanness. Indeed, the outline of contiguous 48 states was so well established in the public mind that its use to represent the U.S.A. was quite unaffected by the addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union in 1959, as the 49th and 50th states. In atlases, Alaska and Hawaii are routinely crammed into the lower corner of the U.S. map, at different scales to the main map of the country. And it is very difficult to include the new states in coherent objects, like lapel pins. In the modern language of iconography, the shape of the Lower 48 is the United States of America.

In the second-half of the twentieth century, the growing awareness among advertisers and manufacturers of the map icon’s broad appeal to consumers led them increasingly to incorporate and exploit the map icon as a marketing tool to promote their commercial products. Like the ubiquitous sports logos, companies specializing in political paraphernalia have applied the patriotic map icon to T-shirts, baseball caps, and mugs as well as the more traditional campaign buttons and pins. A favorite device is to combine multiple patriotic symbols into one image.

A Note on the Online Version of the Exhibition

The original installation contained well over a hundred images and artifacts, too many to be individually described either in the original exhibition checklist or online. Moreover, most of the items were created since 1945 and therefore remain within copyright, which poses a significant challenge: it is beyond OML's capacity to secure permission to reproduce every item. This exhibition accordingly features photographs of the original installation to show groups of artifacts. The acknowledgments section indicates those individuals or institutions who have given permission to reproduce their works on this site.