The San Francisco Map Fair

Fellow cartographers!

I’m standing in a large ballroom at the Regency Center and there’s static and friction in the air as hundreds of people are scurrying around from one booth to another as if they’re at Comic Con. They’re smiling and giggling and laughing as if they’ve just snatched an autograph from their favorite celebrity.

But they’re not and they haven’t. Instead, we’re all standing in a room filled to the brim with hundreds if not thousands of maps – maps tacked up on displays and racks and stalls, left out in the open air for us to sort and filter through with our grubby little hands.

Yet these are not just ordinary maps.

I was joking with a friend that brought me along for the ride about how realistic these prints were when an elderly man with glasses perched on the tip of his nose interrupted us: “Oh, they’re real enough,” he said with a careful, wry smile. It was at this point that I looked down and suddenly realized that the map I was holding was a real specimen from the 1700s and it cost more than $11,000.

The annual San Francisco Map Fair doesn’t screw around. You want maps? Here’s every possible map that’s ever been printed. You want the lithographed version of that? Here. You want the first sketch by the cartographer’s second cousin? Please don’t waste my time with such easy questions.

Maps of every kind and sort were on display; maps for possible and now long forgotten railroads across North America, maps and drawings of Europe after WWI, maps drawn up by the military that drew an American-made Tokyo after WWII, maps that were advertisements for tourists, French propaganda maps, maps of death and conquest in England, maps of Paris, Berlin, Oahu...

…maps of the Bay Area before the earthquake, maps with very, very good Rs…

It’s almost too much. The whole place reminded me of a well organized Flickr account where you can spend an entire afternoon just falling through an infinitely scrolling interface of endlessly interesting ideas. And with each map you can throw on a new filter in your mind to think about the world. Okay, let’s see all these maps as just fancy lookin’ graphics. Look at those lines! How did they draw those? Look at those cute baby cows perched on the edge of that island! The colors there! The sheer, relentless restraint of this one!

Okay, what about History? Well, this map here was printed by an airline company to prove that flight was a boring routine and not something to be afraid of. Oh and this map to your left redistributes the countries that the USSR gobbled up. And this map here doesn’t include the islands off the coast because we hadn’t discovered them yet. Maps aren’t just fancy graphics, maps aren’t harmless, these borders are what people die for. These maps are territories, assets, priceless resources for mass slaughter, assassination, the pillaging of an entire civilization.

These maps don’t draw the world so much as shape it from the ground up.

All of this is to say that the next time the San Francisco Map Fair rolls into town you should find yourself the nerdiest friend you have and drag them along. Because you’ll both walk out of there with the biggest smiles and perilously empty bank accounts.