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Politics of the Past: Putting politicians on the map

Editor’s note: This summer and fall, Capitol Report is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s political archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful politicians, contested elections, curious facial hair and more.

In 1873 and 1874, Alfred T. Andreas spent more than $200,000 to publish an atlas. He bought 70 tons of paper, 17 of cardboard and one of leather, and he hired cartographers, lithographers and a small army of door-to-door salesmen. The “Illustrated Historical Atlas of Minnesota,” one of the first statewide atlases to appear anywhere in the country, sold 10,000 copies in a state with only 70,000 households.

Including illustrations of both ornate mansions and simple farmhouses, along with full-color picture views of cities, photos of prominent politicians and hundreds of biographies of residents — Andreas’ atlas helped a young state form a social and cultural identity. “There were maps made before, but the combination of all the icons of the state rolled into a book must have had an impact on people’s sense of their political location,” said David Lanegran, a Macalester College geography professor who’s written about the Andreas atlas.

Farmers, doctors and tradesmen paid for inclusion in the atlas; it functioned as sort of a cross between a “Who’s Who” anthology and the yellow pages. Some critics of the time complained it was a swindle, a fleecing of laborers into wasting money on sketches of their homes and cows. But the ability of the rural poor to buy their way into posterity is precisely what makes the atlas a valuable, democratic historical document, and Andreas’ tactics don’t seem all that unscrupulous to modern eyes, habituated to the bleak, bright light of the contemporary marketing racket. “It’s like why real estate agents put their faces on bus stops,” explained Minnesota Historical Society senior curator Pat Coleman.

Legislators, however, likely didn’t pay to be listed, and Lanegran said their appearance in the atlas served a role in forging Minnesota’s collective civic consciousness. “It’s the first time people across the state actually saw the Legislature, their elected officials,” he said. “It’s like a team photo. You get a sense of individuals within a unitary organization. You think, ‘Do you look like them? Do you see yourself in the Legislature? Could you imagine yourself running?’”

You can view a copy of the Andreas atlas at the Minnesota Historical Society library in St. Paul.

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