Don’t be square! Adventures in mapping Washington, DC.

A while back, a friend was admiring (okay, questioning) some map-art that I had on display. Specifically, he wanted to know what this was:


It is, for those who didn’t read the title of this post, the shape of Washington, DC:


Well, if we’re making value judgements, a better (read: slightly more representationally accurate) map would be this one:


The shape would be easier to recognize if you spent, I don’t know, thirty seconds in Washington, DC, where this map-as-logo appears every few feet (or thimble-whispers, if you talk metric).

Here are just a few of the places where I noticed the shape of DC:

oct 28 2013 IMG_5768


Left to right: a construction company advertisement, the Department of Parks & Recreation sign, and in an exhibit at the public library built by DC school children.

Once you start looking, you’ll see it all over the place:

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 5.58.04 AM

 (Because, if you remember, they can’t actually vote.)

washington map society

DC tea towel

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 10.20.09 AM

maptote DC


Circular City Map by Archie Archambault

Circular City Map by Archie Archambault

** Bonus Material **


This is the flag of DC, which will be relevant in about two sentences.

The 2014 American Psychological Association Annual Convention brochure came in the mail, and look what I found on the back:


(I don’t know how you would know that that’s DC if you weren’t already familiar with the flag and the map-as-logo shape, because the back of the flyer only talks about Toronto.)

BUT, as I found out while looking for pictures of DC to trace into the artwork shown in Figure 1, DC used to be a square, as shown in this map from 1835:

455px-Map_of_the_District_of_Columbia,_1835Apparently, as Wikipedia informed me, the territory of Washington, DC, was first of all stolen from the Piscataway and Nacotchtank peoples, then invented out of territory that formerly fell under the jurisdictions of Maryland and Virginia.

DC 1857

The Organic Act of 1801 put the District of Columbia under the control of the federal government (which, as discussed previously, means variations on a theme of disenfranchisement for locals).

In 1846, Congress “retrocession-ed” the territory that had been ‘donated’ by the state of Virginia, and then outlawed slave trading (but not slavery) in DC in 1850.

Learning barely anything about the incredibly complicated history of the territory makes me want to read a lot more about it. I think I’ll start with this book:


which a recent H-Net review called “required reading for any student of the antislavery movement.”

*** Double Bonus ***

DC is missing

See if you can find places where DC is missing altogether.


Just found this while looking through state Department of Transportation and government websites for another project:


And this just came through on ye olde list serve from Map Tote:

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 9.37.07 AM


KP told me about Neighborwoods, and here’s their badge (aka pin or button) of DC:



Clearly this is of ongoing interest to me, so here are some more images of DC:




(Not a map – or is it? – but still a pretty great illustration of D.C. by MP.)


City of Washington,

From “Tanner’s Universal Atlas,” 1836.


In Part 1 of “Talking to Americans,” Rick Mercer tellingly refers to D.C. as “the centre of the centre of the universe.”


Via HM on the Washington Map Society’s Facebook page, here’s a quiz: “Think you know D.C.? The nation’s capital in 10 maps.”



Arbuckles’ lllustrated Atlas of the United States of America (1889) shows D.C. on the cover. Image links to the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.


See also: “Washington, D.C.” over at my Carto-Caricatures of America blog.

Dear regular readers,

You’ll be seeing a lot of travel tips and Swipes Files in this space for the next few weeks while I go Get Up To Stuff. Comments will be moderately less frequently, etc. I’ll fill you in on my Super Secret Research Trip when I get back in September! :-)

(It’s not a secret, but that sounds a bit more exotic than “Staying at the Newberry Library until they kick me out every evening.”)

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One Response to Don’t be square! Adventures in mapping Washington, DC.

  1. Pingback: Fifty U.S. States & New Shapes | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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