Historical Viz Digest: Issue 1

March 2019

It’s been super gratifying to see the mix of people who have signed up for the Data Visualization Society (DVS) so far. One of the most striking things to me has been the differing lengths of careers people have had visualizing. Some are brand new, others have been doing it for 20 years and more.

I’ve been doing solely visualization for the last 8 years or so, running a viz studio in London, and in that time have read countless books, swapped thousands of links, been to many conferences and I’m still regularly surprised and delighted by vizzes from the past I’ve never seen before.

The slack has different channels for different interests, there’s #critique or #best-practices or a #showcase channel too, and one of those channels is #historical-viz, where we post data visualizations made before 1983 and discuss the practical, theoretical and aesthetic aspects of those works. We’re defining #historical-viz as anything pre-1983 when Tufte published his seminal Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

What’s different about this #historical-viz channel on the DVS slack is the jaw-dropping depth of knowledge, experience and previous exposure of its members to all kinds of visualization. This means it’s surfacing some real gems. For me this is truly unique and something that’s super exciting for this digest, we have an opportunity to create a real centre of gravity for a modern take on #historical-viz.

So, though I’m no viz history expert, the other moderators of this channel and I will be pulling together a regular digest of pieces / data visualizations / maps / charts / diagrams / works posted in #historical-viz so we can keep some record of the things we’re all posting. I’ll be theming the selections where possible, these could be ‘this was the first time we saw X type chart’ or ‘this person’s visualizations of X lead to Y’ but these may also be looser themes like ‘these colour palettes were a thing back then, right?’ or even ‘this is just really cool’. Feel free to give feedback.

Henry Gannett — More than a mapmaker

We started off the inaugural week of the DVS with a beautiful selection of visualizations by Henry Gannett, primarily an American mapmaker, geographer and ‘Father of the Quadrangle’ (the basis for topographical maps in the United States). Mostly however what’s posted from Gannett aren’t maps, something Elijah Meeks is keen on — we all know there are a ton of maps in the history of viz so we wanted to see what other types of viz people liked. Thanks to Jason Forrest for posting.

My personal favorite is this first one, Growth of the elements of the population: 1790 to 1890. I love the simplicity, the fact that it’s more about grasping comparative growth than actual numbers, I find it really intuitive to understand, and the breakdown of ‘nationalities’ at the end is gracefully integrated:

But these are also beautiful.

Composition of church membership of the states and territories, 1890:

Distribution of those engaged in certain selected occupations, by color and nationality, 1890:

Percentage of the Colored population in each age group, by sex, 1890:


Emile Cheysson’s small, medium and large multiples

This use of small multiples posted by Stephanie Tuerk is also gorgeous. It’s from Emile Cheysson’s 1881 Statistique graphique de la France, and (as far as I can work out with shaky French) shows comparative tonnage of goods imported through different French ports. Loving the clever use of space across the spread to fit in the different scales of multiples necessary to get them all in one view.


Lester Beall from Fortune Magazine with flying colours

A slight change of pace for our final piece, again from Jason Forrest, this time from the 1940s. Air Cargo: Its Problems… and Prospects is by Lester Beall from Fortune Magazine. For me it’s a mix of a Field Notes-esque look and feel, a hint of ISOTYPE and bold primary colours. Bit disturbing that it accurately but unfortunately points to the future of air travel partly being about transporting foods and flowers around the world.

And, that’s it for Digest number 1. We’ll pause slightly for subsequent iterations, so we’d love to get your feedback in the comments below or on Twitter — we want to improve/tweak/evolve this as time goes by so we’re all getting what we want from it.