The Powerful 1940 Map That Depicts America as a Nation of Immigrants
It was produced by the Council Against Intolerance in the lead up to World War II.
In the years leading up to the Second World War, isolationist sentiment coursed pretty strongly throughout the United States. Some Americans feared that immigrants were a threat to the country. Sound familiar? Then you’ll have no trouble understanding the reasons why the map below, titled America–A Nation of One People From Many Countries, was published in 1940 by the Council Against Intolerance in America.
“With the exception of the Indian, all Americans or their forefathers came here from other countries,” the illustrator Emma Bourne inscribed on the map. The Council Against Intolerance commissioned Bourne’s work in an effort to remind Americans that the U.S. had always defined itself as a country of varied national origins and religious backgrounds.
Bourne illustrates America’s unique ethnic and religious diversity by erasing state borderlines and showing the nation as one unit. Long red ribbons weave through the landscape to show clusters of immigrant groups and where they settled, from Japanese in the West to Italians in the East. At the bottom left is an inset scroll listing famous Americans in literature, science, industry, and the arts alongside their ethnic backgrounds, including George Gershwin and Albert Einstein, who became a U.S. citizen the year the map was published. At the time, the map served as an educational poster in line with the Council Against Intolerance’s argument that prejudice could undermine national unity during wartime.
The map is “a relatively early example of an idea that’s become popular in recent decades,” as Dara Lind writes over at Vox. “That diversity itself is what makes America strong, and that difference is something to be celebrated rather than eliminated.”
“Maps of this kind were not particularly common and especially not at this scale,” says Ian Fowler, the director of Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine, who notes that the physical map itself is quite large. “While this map does borrow stylistic elements from pictorial maps produced during the 1920s and ‘30s, it is very unique in its emphasis and display of information.”
Between the late 1930s through the mid-1940s, the Council Against Intolerance’s educational department produced an array of materials, including books, manuals, and posters used in adult reading groups. Founded by the left-leaning Jewish author James Waterman Wise, the New York City-based organization fought against “prejudice by calling attention to American ideals, heroes, and traditions.”
“The map accomplishes these objectives by showing a United States without state boundaries,” says Fowler. “It uses the history of immigrants to heighten awareness of the strengths of cultural diversity and to show visually the diversity present in the country.”
Bourne also emphasizes the range of religions present during this era, along with staple industries in each state, including a giant potato in Idaho, a huge fish in Washington, and large lobster in Maine. Detailed figures of people at work are meant to show how immigrants are active in creating a prosperous America, explains Fowler.
“It’s important to note that everyone on the map is engaged in industry or labor, which I conjecture is on purpose to show that immigrants are not ‘lazy,’ which was (and unfortunately still is) a damaging stereotype used by nativists and isolationists,” he says.
For all its strengths, the map struggles to represent African American populations, and leaves no space for Native American populations. This aspect of the map compelled the poet Langston Hughes to annotate his copy with a burning cross and a reference to the Ku Klux Klan near the cotton workers in the South. The map and the Council Against Intolerance’s activity also caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who later wrote about both favorably in her newspaper column, My Day.
“Unfortunately, the depiction of the immigrant as evil and as a scapegoat for the problems facing the United States is something that has persisted throughout our history and still pollutes our social and political discourse,” says Fowler.
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