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The Mississippi in a Can

Blog Posts

The Mississippi in a Can


Maps have always conveyed and represented more than simply geographic or spatial reasoning. In 1866, just after the Civil War had ended, the St. Louis-based entrepreneurs Myron Coloney and Sidney B. Fairchild created and patented a “ribbon map” of the Mississippi River. This device consisted of a paper map, approximately three inches wide and eleven feet in length, mounted on linen, and rolled onto a spool inside of a metal canister. The map could then be unrolled and pulled out for examination through a slit in the side of the container. Coloney & Fairchild published their ribbon map to be sold to steamboat tourists traveling up and down the river. This form, though not practical or detailed enough for actual navigation, was a useful method for representing the Mississippi in its entirety, and for passengers to orient themselves during their voyage.

The map was not an unbiased geographical representation, however. Coloney & Fairchild, as businessmen from the once preeminent western commercial center of St. Louis, hoped to reestablish the city’s centrality and importance for western transportation and commerce in the post-Civil War period. Their map features St. Louis as a transportation hub, marking the intersection of railroad lines and river travel with the city’s location, as well as particular points of interest for the curious tourist with money to spare.

An illustrated map by F. Graf entitled  Saint Louis in 1896,   Wikimedia Commons

An illustrated map by F. Graf entitled Saint Louis in 1896, Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the commercial aims of the creators, the map also serves as a tool for re-unification between North and South. The Mississippi River, flowing from its Minnesota headwaters to its mouth in Louisiana, was a strategic military feature during the Civil War for both Union and Confederate forces. Coloney & Fairchild’s map illustrates how land was realized with a new nationalist consciousness in the wake of conflict between different geographic regions. Certain battle sites are marked along the river’s path, relegating the war to the realm of history and tourism. A map depicting the entirety of the Mississippi, north to south, emphasized the continuity of the United States, and the rebuilding of a nation in both American minds and the American landscape.

Only a handful of original ribbon maps exist today, housed in various institutions and libraries throughout the country. The Oak Spring Garden Library is fortunate to have one of these devices in its collections.