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Sea Charts

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Working Sea Charts

Accurate and up-to-date sea charts are more than just a convenience for sailors, they are a matter of life and death. Because of this there has always been a strong demand for good charts to be taken on ship board, whether of the coastal waters of the United States, the Mediterranean Sea or on any of the world's oceans and seas. Sea atlases were used, but they tend to be unwieldy on board ship and the process of updating an entire atlas very time consuming. A single sheet chart was easier to use and it was possible for publishers to issue updated versions of a single chart more regularly. Thus it is that most of the charts actually used on ships over the years have been separately issued, single sheet charts. These were sometimes folded, but usually they were rolled, sometimes backed on linen or with a distinctive blue paper (giving them the name "bluebacks").

Separately issued sea charts were the charts that allowed ships--the primary means of commercial, private and military transportation until the mid-nineteenth century--to navigate the seas and oceans of the world. These were the charts that were used by explorers, merchantmen, and naval captains and thus which oiled the wheels of history. Their desirability is enhanced by their great scarcity. This has two main causes. First, any sheet of paper being used on board a ship at sea was often subject to damage or even destruction. As well, it has always been considered important to destroy any out-of-date chart in case someone inadvertently might use it. An out-of-date chart can be extremely dangerous for ship and crew, so most were destroyed as soon as updated charts became available.

GoGo to a short history of sea charts


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Atlantic Ocean

"Chart of the North Atlantic Ocean From the Equator to 65 North Latitude. According to the Latest Surveys & Observations." New York: E. & G.W. Blunt, [1832]-35. Separately issued "blue back" chart; mounted to blue back paper and rolled. 36 x 47 1/4. Engraving. With original label for "John H. Wheeler. Mathematical Instrument Maker and Chart Seller. 220 Water Street. New York" on back. With considerable surface cracking and stains. Missing 3 x 4 section in lower left. Still legible and together.

A rare example of a working blue-back sea chart by the E. & G.W. Blunt showing the Atlantic Ocean north of the Equator, from western Europe and Africa to America, showing the entire Gulf of Mexico and as far inland in North America as the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay. Though examples of this chart would have been carried by many ships in the mid-nineteenth century, few would have survived. Not only would such charts be subject to the usual wear from use on ship board, but it is traditional to destroy (rather than simply put aside) charts once replaced by updated versions, for inaccurate, out-of-date information was too dangerous to be left around for possible inadvertent use. $750


Isaac Purdy. "Laurie's Reduced Chart of the Ethiopic or Southern Atlantic Ocean." London: R.H. Laurie, 8 January 1857. Separately issued "blueback" chart, backed on blue paper and rolled. 36 3/4 x 48 1/2. Engraving. With considerable staining, water stains and repaired tears. Back with old patches. Considerable manuscript navigation notes. Still intact. A good example of a working chart.

An impressively detailed working chart of the southern Atlantic Ocean, based on the latest surveys of "Officers of The British Navy." This map was published by Richard Holmes Laurie (1777-1858). Having taken over his father's partnership in the renowned firm of Laurie & Whittle, Richard eventually became the sole proprietor of the mapmaking firm after the death of James Whittle in 1818. With the help of John Purdy, Alexander Findlay, and Alexander George Findlay, Laurie began to specialize in the production of nautical publications and charts. Drawing on his firm's long experience, Laurie produced maps that were exceptional for their crisp, clear detail as evidenced even in the superior calligraphy of the title cartouche. Typically of bluebacks, this map has precise detail of all the coastlines, with geographic coordinates, shoals, and other navigational information. This chart is particularly concerned with the navigation around the Cape of Good Hope and Tierra del Fuego, so it shows the routes used to round these southern points. The entire coastline of southern South America is shown, as the western coast of southern Africa and up the east coast as far as the River St. John. Included are a number of detailed inset maps, including one of Tierra del Fuego and one of the Cape Good Hope and its bays as far as Capetown. $575



"Chart of the South Atlantic Ocean From the Equator to 60 South Latitude. From the most Recent British Authorities. Sheet II." Washington: Hydrographic Office, Navy Department, April 13, 1869. Separately issued U.S. Naval Chart. 24 1/4 x 36. Lithograph. A few pencil navigation notations. Very good condition for working chart.

A U.S. Navy chart chart of the southern Atlantic, extending from the equator to 60 south. This chart was based on the latest information available from the British Admiralty. Most of the map covers the boundless waters and few islands of the South Pacific, but in the top right corner of the chart is most of the lower half of Africa, from St. Thomas Island to the Cape. No information is given of the interior of the continent, but much detail is presented along the coast, including ports, light beacons, and notes that would be useful for those sailing along the coast. The chart includes three inset charts of African ports. $450



"The Canary Islands from British Surveys in 1834 and 1838. Corrected to 1871." Washington: Hydrographic Office, Navy Department, February 1871. Separately issued U.S. Naval Chart. 18 1/2 x 25. Lithograph. Yellow and red notations of lighthouses. Very good condition for working chart. $150



Europe

"The Irish Channel." Captain F.W. Beechey. London: Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, 1847. Separately issued working sea chart, showing the entire Irish Sea from the North Channel to St. George's Channel. 37 3/8 x 24 3/4. Engraving by J. & C. Walker. A few hand-color highlights showing lighthouses or beacons. Few short tears and pin holes in margins only; otherwise, very good condition.

The Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty was established in 1795 to provide charts of the British Navy. The first Admiralty chart was not produced until 1800, but the Napoleonic threat spurred the production of a substantial body of superb charts by the end of the first quarter of the century. From then on the Hydrographic Office systematically surveyed and produced the best charts made of all parts of the world, which were made available not just to the British Navy, but to the general public as well. This is an excellent example of this output, showing the entire Irish Sea from the North Channel to St. George's Channel. The waters are extensively depicted with soundings, and coastal features are precisely depicted with fine engraving. Interior information of the coasts is also given, with general topography, and some waterways out to sea. $825


"Mityleni Island. Port Iero or Olivieri." Published by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty in London. Sold by J. Potter, London. Last updated 1889. 27 x 20. Photostat.

The charts published by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty in London at the end of the nineteenth century represent well both cartographic history and also the history of European naval technology and surveying techniques. The concise coastal surveys were compiled to meet the naval demand for the most contemporary description of the Mediterranean which illustrated necessary nautical information. Many of the sheets are described as updated versions of previously issued maps with added details such as water depth, land elevation and directional readings. Also included within the annotations were landmarks, landings, anchorages, ancient settlements and modern development. Though mostly a product of British Naval surveys, French and Italian Navy surveys were also cited as sources for some of the charts. The result of this joint enterprise was a highly detailed representation of the region. For those interested in the mapping of the Mediterranean as well as naval history, this chart serves as a wonderful example of both areas of study. $40


Alexander G. Findlay. "The Coasts of Western Europe Between the British Isles and Gibraltar, with Madeira, etc." London: R.H. Laurie, [1900]-1903. Separately issued "blueback" chart; mounted to blue paper and rolled. 43 x 75. Engraving. With consider surface wear, some tears, creases, and general wear. Also some stains and many manuscript navigational plotting marks. Some small holes. Overall, good condition for working chart.

Having taken over his father's partnership in the renowned firm of Laurie & Whittle, Richard Holmes Laurie (1777-1858) eventually became the sole proprietor of the mapmaking firm after the death of James Whittle in 1818. With the help of John Purdy, Alexander Findlay, and Alexander George Findlay, Laurie began to specialize in the production of nautical publications and charts. Drawing on his firm's long experience, Laurie produced maps that were exceptional for their crisp, clear detail as evidenced even in the superior calligraphy of the title cartouche. This is a chart of the western coasts of Europe updated to just after the turn of the century. The British Isles, except for the northern-most parts, are shown, and the chart extends down just past Gibraltar. Many insets are included of ports along the coasts. Typically of bluebacks, this map has precise detail of all the coastlines, with geographic coordinates, shoals, and other navigational information. It was intended for ships sailing the coast of Brazil so details of depths, rivers, harbors, lights houses and such are particularly copious. This chart was heavily used, but it is still in very good condition for a working chart. $450


Asia

"Karaghatch Harbor." Published by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty in London. Sold by J. Potter, London. Last updated 1891. 20 x 27. Photostat.

The charts published by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty in London at the end of the nineteenth century represent well both cartographic history and also the history of European naval technology and surveying techniques. The concise coastal surveys were compiled to meet the naval demand for the most contemporary description of the Mediterranean which illustrated necessary nautical information. Many of the sheets are described as updated versions of previously issued maps with added details such as water depth, land elevation and directional readings. Also included within the annotations were landmarks, landings, anchorages, ancient settlements and modern development. Though mostly a product of British Naval surveys, French and Italian Navy surveys were also cited as sources for some of the charts. The result of this joint enterprise was a highly detailed representation of the region. For those interested in the mapping of the Mediterranean as well as naval history, this chart serves as a wonderful example of both areas of study. $40


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