This 19th Century Atlas Has Made Maps For Blind Readers

At the beginning of the 19th century, most blind children and adults could not attend school. Two Bostonians set out to change this. Dr. John Dix Fisher and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe joined other reformist members of Boston’s upper classes to found what is now the Perkins School for the Blind.

Originally named the New England Institution for Education of the Blind, the school became the center for works produced in an innovative raised font called Boston Line Type. These works include a remarkable atlas, which would have allowed blind and visually impaired students to explore the changing landscape of 19th century America with their fingertips.

In the early days of the school, Howe began developing Boston Line Type as a solution to the textbook problem. He used a printing press the school acquired in 1835, which was adapted for a new style of relief printing.

Although braille developed around the same time in Europe, it would not become popular in the United States for decades.

Instead, students at the school, and later blind and visually impaired Americans elsewhere, had access to textbooks, novels, and more printed in Boston Line Type.

This style features the Roman alphabet pressed into the page to make it raised and tactile. The letters were kept simple and lowercase for ease.

By feeling with the fingers, the text could be read, albeit slowly. While it later became clear that Braille was a faster and easier method to learn, Boston-style type was revolutionary for accessibility. It remained important throughout the 19th century.

Even Charles Dickens had 250 copies of his The Old Curiosity Shop printed for blind readers in type. Under Howe’s direction, the school also produced a fascinating atlas with typewritten descriptions and unique maps of the American states as they existed at the time of printing in the early 19th century.

The 1837 Atlas of the United States featured raised land edges, horizontal “shading” on the water, rising rivers, and triangular mountains.

Fifty copies of this remarkable work were produced, but only four exist. However, the map is available to explore visually or via a downloadable 3D model online. According to “Touch This Page: Making Sense of the Ways We Read,” the Boston line type was central to many lives. Harriet Gamage, who was one of Perkins’s first students, praised maps like those found in this atlas.

She wrote to Howe: “As I am greatly indebted to your noble institution for the faculties I may enjoy, I will name the branches I am presently teaching.

Reading, spelling, arithmetic, history, geography, maps, like the use of sight, which I can explain from a retentive memory, and a reference to my own that are so beautifully engraved.