The Vault

A 19th-Century Relief Map That Let Students Explore the Roman Empire by Touch

L.R. Klemm’s “Relief Practice Map: Roman Empire,” 1894. 

Library of Virginia 

The tactile map, an innovation of the 19th century, allowed both blind and sighted students to feel their way across a given geography. Writing for the digital archive 19th-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts, where I first saw this item, Leah Thomas notes that this L.R. Klemm map was made decades after the first tactile maps were printed in Europe and the United States. While the waterproof map could be used to teach students without sight, Klemm believed that relief maps like this one could also fruitfully engage sighted students through the sense of touch. 

Klemm, a former superintendent of schools who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Education, wrote in an 1890 book called European Schools: Or What I Saw in the Schools of Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland that the Continental teachers he observed used simple maps to great advantage. “Geographic knowledge has for ages been wrested from overstocked maps,” he wrote. “The child had to search painfully among a bewildering mass of data and facts for those which were to be learned.” A map like this one, which kept information to one variable, was much preferable to “the maps such as we use in America, which blur the children’s mental picture by their multiplicity of detail.” 

In an 1888 article for the professional publication The American Teacher, Klemm described the painstaking process of creating one of these relief maps—a process he used as another teaching tool, enlisting students to help him scrape and carve plaster casts into negative shapes of mountain ranges and plateaus. “A map thus prepared in a gem of correctness,” he wrote, “and the student who has worked it has so clear a conception of the topography and irrigation of the respective country that it can scarcely be improved.” 

Click on the image to reach a larger version, or visit the map’s page on the 19th-Century Disability website.