The Color of Old Maps, Part 3

By: Chris Lane • Feb 24, 2012 • 0 Comments



The issues raised by new color on old maps are varied and complex.  While original color is clearly desirable, appropriate or even merely attractive new color is considered by many to be almost as desirable.  Some collectors feel that adding new color to a map is not problematic, while others feel that this should never be done.  For some purposes new color is inappropriate, but one cannot say that this is always the case.  It seems only reasonable to take a relativistic approach: each individual must decide for himself his purposes in map collecting and how those purposes relate to the issues of new color.9


Along with the theoretical reasons for such a relativistic approach, there is a very strong practical reason not to be dogmatic regarding new color on maps, viz. the difficulty in some cases of distinguishing between original and new color.  While there are clues which help to determine the originality of color, there are still instances where a definitive answer can come only through elaborate scientific means.  If a map has color which appears to be original, as best can be practically determined, does it really matter whether the color is indeed original or not?  And even if one knows the color on a particular map is new–because one saw it applied, say–, but for all appearances it looks original, does it really matter that it is not?


The historical arguments against adding new color to old maps are quite compelling.  Even if they do not lead to the conclusion that all new color is bad, there are still lessons to be drawn.  It is important that some examples of all maps be maintained in their original state.  Thus for very rare maps it is desirable not to add color to them.  It matters less whether one adds new color to a common map known to be held in its original state in a number of collections.


It is also important that, when known, the nature of the color on a particular map–that is whether it is original or new–should be identified.  As long as this information is provided, the historic record will not become distorted.  This is important not only for the maps themselves, but also for their printed images in books and magazines.  Unfortunately, such illustrations are often not labeled with this information, and there are many instances of illustrations of maps with new color which are not identified as such.


There are no simple answers to questions about new color on old maps.  Each individual must decide for himself what approach to take.  While one collector might avoid maps with new color, another might just as appropriately decide that maps with attractive new color are preferable to uncolored maps.  The application of new color to maps is not wrong in all cases.  As long as it does not destroy or distort the history of maps, new color does little harm and can add pleasure for many in their pursuit of these interesting and beautiful objects.