One Nation, in a Single Broadsheet

The United States at One View presents a patriotic portrait of an expanding nation through statistics, charts, lists, and symbols. Humphrey Phelps (1799–1875), an entrepreneurial New York editor and publisher of popular maps, travelers’ guides, atlases, and gazetteers, synthesized data readily available in these genres to compile the broadside. Displayed most likely in post offices, banks, schools, and taverns, the sheet would have reached a wider audience than most books or maps of the period. Acquired in 2007, it complements other popular publications by Phelps in the Newberry, as well as the library’s deep collections of cartographic materials, guidebooks, and printed ephemera.

Phelps conveyed his message through the design as well as the content of the broadsheet. At the base, descriptions of Oregon and Texas fill a green swath hinting at landscape; these recent territorial acquisitions made the growing nation continental in scope. The graphics just above also emphasize the country's vastness through suggestively arranged geographic data: a blue chart of river lengths extends laterally, a list of mountain heights reaches skyward (accompanied by a hot-air balloon), and a table of distances between major towns and cities reads in multiple directions: horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Near the top, lists of city populations and transportation networks (railroads, canals, steamboat routes) highlight the nation’s increasing urbanization and the links between economic centers.

The visual and ideological linchpin of the sheet—and, implicitly, the country—is the representation of money in the center. At the left, images of Continental bills, the national paper currency issued during the American Revolution, framed by war data, set the historical stage. At the right is a much larger image of a United States Treasury bill. Such bills were not currency, but short-term, interest-bearing certificates, through which the government could borrow funds from its citizens. By featuring this bond, the broadside proclaims that the U.S. was, literally and figuratively, banking on its people. Much as the Continentals helped finance the Revolution, the bonds also helped support the nation's antebellum expansion, facilitating recent territorial acquisitions, growth of major cities, and construction of a continental transportation network. More important, the Treasury bills represented a national monetary system, in contrast to the primary forms of exchange during this period, coin and paper bills issued by state banks. The Treasury bills foreshadow the development of standardized paper currency that would expedite the creation of national markets and further economic development. Conspicuously downplayed in the scheme (relegated to a small table near the bottom) are physical commodities, the output of the nation's farms and workshops. The broadside thus presents the U.S. not as a nation of producers, but as a commercial republic, where instruments of exchange—transportation, markets, money—are central.

The form of the broadside itself neatly recapitulates this message. It too is a means of exchange, of information. By producing the sheet, Phelps expanded his own market share of the publishing trade. Like the Treasury bill, the lithograph is made of paper, boasts finely engraved symbols and borders, and is crowned by the national eagle. Replete with decoration as well as data, The United States at One View reminds viewers that Americans also need art to ensure the continued development of their national culture.

This essay was written by Diane Dillon, interim vice president for Research and Academic Programs at the Newberry, and was published in The Newberry 125, Stories of Our Collection.