Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle

BIMCC Newsletter No 18 • January 2004 (abstract)

Petermann's Planet — A Guide to German Handatlases and their Siblings throughout the World, Volume I: The Great Handatlases

By Jürgen Espenhorst, edited and translated from the German text by George R. Crossman. Schwerte (Germany) : Pangaea Verlag, 2003. 684 pages with 169 b/w and 349 colour illustrations, 24.5 x 17.0 cm (carton binding). ISBN 3-930401-35-5. To order: Pangaea-Verlag, Villigster Strasse 32, D-58239 Schwerte, Germany, tel +49-2304-72284,, e-mail, EUR 90.00 (+ VAT).

Most of us, I suppose, have come across the one or other German Atlas, either handed down in the family, or during our map peregrinations, and names such as Stieler, Meyer, Andree are familiar from dealers' stock or from auction catalogues. Many of us will also admit that maps from about the second half of the 19th century and later are often considered too modern, too sober and crowded to match the charm of ancient maps, with their sea monsters and erratic, errroneous geography. And yet it is through these maps that we may witness the quite revolutionary advances in the mapping of the world, to which a group of German cartographers so significantly contributed. In this first of two volumes, Espenhorst presents six families of atlases produced in the span of the 150 years between the beginning of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century. A second volume will address some 50 smaller or less important handatlas families.

The book is based on a previous bibliography by the author (1) the use of which was, however, essentially limited to readers of German. This new work is now called a guide rather than a bibliography since it was conceived by the author as a textbook to accompany the detailed bibliographical listings in the previous work. Collectors to whom the original publication in German is not accessible might regret this. It is true that we have become accustomed to being able to look up a specific map or groups of maps in carto-bibliographies such as the Atlantes Neerlandici by Koeman or its new edition by P. van der Krogt, in Les atlas français by M. Pastoureau, or in the Atlantes Austriaci by I. Kretschmer and J. Dörflinger, all of which contain a detailed description of the map contents of a given range of atlases. In the introduction the author justifies this choice, arguing that a translation of the map listings from the previous work was not justified, and that one could also consult the 9-volume List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress (the so-called Phillips-LeGear list) which can be consulted in most Map Libraries. He has a point also when he places a certain emphasis on describing the origin and evolution of atlas productions, highlighting handbooks and commentary volumes which frequently accompanied these. Another innovation in this guide is the description of bindings, which should appeal to bibliophiles in particular. Collectors will also appreciate the inclusion of references to current market values of these atlases and an initial estimation of their rarity.

The title Petermann's Planet has been chosen, we are told, in deference to August Petermann who may be regarded as the patron figure for an important period in the history of German cartography which saw the development of the handatlas. It sounds a bit curious, but one can't quarrel with this choice.

Now what is a handatlas? The term derives from the German Handatlas which the author defines as a geographic atlas which concentrates on the essential, generally in folio format. In other words, it is an atlas that contains in one ready-to-hand location maps of all parts of the world. This has, therefore, no relation to a pocket or portable atlas (zak atlas in Dutch, or atlas de poche in French). The International Handbook of Mapping Terms to 1900 (2) cites County, Facsimile, Island, National, Pocket, and Regional Atlases but no handatlas, although the term appears to have been used by a few publishers for some time; Espenhorst quotes five English language examples, among which Fullerton's Descriptive Hand Atlas of the world (London-Edinburgh, J. Bartholomew, 1870). Observing such terminological inconsistencies, the author devotes about fifteen pages to this point, and his choice of anglicizing the German term may be considered a practical and acceptable compromise.

The six atlas families dealt with in this book are :

  1. WEIMAR - atlases created by Gaspari, Weiland and Kiepert, published by the Geographisches Institut Weimar;
  2. STIELER - atlases created by Stieler, Berghaus and Spruner, published by Justus Perthes in Gotha;
  3. MEYER - atlases created by Meyer, published by the Bibliographisches Institut in Hildburghausen and Leipzig;
  4. SOHR-BERGHAUS - atlases created by Handtke and Berghaus, published by C. Flemming in Glogau;
  5. ANDREE - atlases created by Andree, published by Velhagen & Klasing in Bielefeld and Leipzig;
  6. DEBES - atlases created by Debes, published by H. Wagner & E. Debes in Leipzig, and by Paul Oestergaard in Berlin.

In addition to atlases produced in German-speaking areas (including Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia...), often running into impressive numbers of editions, the index also includes foreign-language editions from Scandinavian countries, plus those in Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, English, American, and a few other languages, all derived from their German versions. Interesting to note the author's concern over the impact the definition of the region of provenance of the German-language atlases might have: at the very beginning of his introduction he states When reference is made in this guide to the area of German culture it should not be seen as reflecting an attitude of hegemony … One would have thought that readers of this kind of scholarly publication would by now have shed their susceptibilities in this respect, but it probably was a statement guided by prudence.

Map enthusiasts, collectors and dealers, will find very instructive the 55 pages (with numerous illustrations) in the chapters on Printing Atlas Maps and The Atlas as a Book. Engraving and printing techniques as well as binding processes are described in full. A comprehensive index and bibliography covering both volumes are promised for Volume II, but in the meantime a preliminary list of references will be available on the internet site listed above.

This work is the result of an immense research task which it must have taken the better part of a life time to compile, verify and edit. Its general aspect and in particular its readability has been much improved over the preceding publication, and the illustrations are now up to current standards. For my part, I would have thought that there was room for a multi-volume bibliographical edtion, each volume dealing with a part only of this vast subject, on the line of existing carto-bibliographies. This would have permitted students of this speciality to make a selective choice of atlas families and to find the corresponding complete map listings in that same volume. However, the edition as it stands is a most remarkable and fundamental addition to the growing range of cartographic reference literature. Not only does it fill a gap in recording the very substantial 19th and 20th century German atlas production, but above all it encourages map collectors to develop an interest in such maps, and to treat them with respect - knowing that they will join the ranks of ancient maps in due course.

(1) Jürgen Espenhorst, Andree, Stieler, Meyer & Co, Handatlanten des deutschen Sprachraums (1800-1945) […, hand atlases from German-speaking countries …], Pangaea Verlag, Schwerte (Germany) 1994, ISBN 3-930401-33-9. Plus Supplement of 1995, ISBN 3-930401-34-7.

(2) Helen Wallis, Arthur Robinson (ed.), Cartographical Innovations - An International Handbook of Mapping Terms, Map Colector Publications, 1987, 8.0110, p. 311. ISBN 0-906-430-04-06

by Wulf Bodenstein