Printmaking and Antique Maps

Almost all maps on the market today were produced since the invention of the printing press. Printing methods such as copper plate engraving, steel engraving or lithography were used. These hand-printing methods require the skilled hands of craftsmen. Only artists would use such time consuming methods for printing today. Therefore old maps are beautiful, decorative works of art that are suitable for framing. The best ones also contain significant historical information. It was not uncommon, especially early on, for map makers to copy each other. Remember that printmakers may have been working from other people's drawings or even only descriptions, and they had to create the image backward so that it will be correct when it is printed on paper!

Woodblock printing is an early form of print making that you will see in our Ptolemy maps published by Munster in 1542 and some of our antique sheet music- it features bold dark lines.

ASI164 Tabula Asiae VI Strabonis Asia - 1542

Copperplate engraving was invented in the 16th century and became the dominant printmaking method for several centuries until steel plate engraving was invented in 1792. Copperplates are softer and easier for artists to work with, but wear out the more prints you make with them.

EUR2584 Carte du Pais D'aunis Ville & Gounernement de la Rochelle - 1627

Steel plate print making allows finer lines and more prints than copperplate and was used for reproducing paintings as prints and also for atlases and books- anything that required many prints to be made with the same plate.

WOR097 Planisphere - World Map - 1851

During the 1880's, they began using photography in the printing and coloring of maps. This was considered a great technological advance because they could print many more maps at far less cost making them affordable to everyone. 

Lithography and chromolithography allows more subtlety in the color gradations and the result is a more "artistic" style, as seen in these bird's eye view maps.

CAM071 1905 - Bird's Eye Map of Jamaica in Color - Antique

 NEW116 1905 - Trolley Wayfinder Bird's Eye View of Trolley Routes in New England - Antique

If you are interested in learning more about printmaking, the Met has a fantastic series of articles on their website: