The Story of Mitchell Maps
For more than 60 years the Mitchell family published some of the finest maps in the United States. The patriarch of the family was Samuel Augustus Mitchell. Originally a schoolteacher, he found the geographic works of the day to be less than desirable.
Despite his lack of training as a cartographer, engraver, or printer; he set out to create high quality maps, atlases, and geography books.
Mitchell began his business by purchasing the 1826 engravings from Anthony Finley’s “New American Atlas.” Mitchell hired the services of Finley’s chief engraver, J.H. Young to improve and update the plates, keeping them current with America’s rapid growth in the early years of the 19th Century. He also improved the appearance of the maps by adding decorative borders. In 1831, he published the work as “Mitchell’s New American Atlas.”
From 1831 until 1846, Mitchell and Young worked together on a few maps and a traveler’s guide. The next collection of maps in an atlas occurred after Mitchell purchased the copyright (and the copper plates) for Tanner’s “New Universal Atlas” in 1845 for $10,000.
Instead of destroying the plates by using them for actual printing (you could only print a few thousand pages per copper plate), they were transferred to lithographic stones for printing. In this way the original copper plates could be used almost indefinitely. In fact, Mitchell (and his successors) continued to use many of these original Tanner plates (with updates and modifications) for more than 40 years.
Beginning in 1850, Mitchell worked with various publishing firms. One of these firms, Thomas, Cowperthwait & Company, published Mitchell maps (in one form or another) until the late 1880’s. The elder Mitchell retired around 1860, turning the business over to his son, S. Augustus Mitchell, Jr., who became an incredibly prolific mapmaker.
Despite the firms’ increasing volume (at one point, the firm employed more than 250 people), the quality of the earlier works was never compromised. Maps were still hand engraved and those engravings transferred to lithographic stones. The printed pages continued to be painted by hand until the end of the century.
The last actual Mitchell atlas (Mitchell’s School Atlas) was published in 1886. However, various publishers used the beautiful Mitchell maps in their atlases and geography books (Cowperthwait, Bradley, Butler) right up to the end of the 19th Century.