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In his book “Collectibles of the National Geographic Society” (1982) Roger Nathan carefully documents each map supplement published with a list that includes year, month, name, additional descriptive information, and dimensions (pages 33-52). The list also includes a check box for each map to allow a collector to document which items they have in their collection.

Embedded in the list are additional check boxes for any map that had an index published. These check boxes are indented and immediately below the map for which the index references. These indexes were sold separately by the Society and included a copy of the map either on paper or, as Nathan described, on linen (until 1952), fabric (1952 to 1968), or plastic (after 1968). These maps are distinguishes from non-indexed maps by a letter/number grid either embedded in the map or in the map’s border. Letters down the sides sometimes, but not always, correspond with latitude and numbers across the top and bottom sometimes correspond with longitude depending on the map’s projection.

Nathan did an outstanding job documenting these indexes, but he wasn’t perfect. While building the Map Index collection template for his collectors’ web site Mike Christie, with the help of Mel De Vilbiss, made a good catch of an error Nathan made. He listed an index for the June 1940 map Southwestern United States that does not existed. The advertisements for that time list this item as a map only and, more importantly, the map does not have a letter/number grid so it could not be indexed.

Relying heavily on their work and a few additional sources I am attempting to complete Nathan’s list. In this endeavor, I feel like a paleontologist who, with only a hand full of bones, tries to complete an entire dinosaur skeleton; although, in my case, I am just trying to complete the tail.

The Golden Age

In what I like to refer to as the Golden Age of Maps (and Map Indexes) the Society would publish five or more maps almost every year along with several map indexes each year. While the map indexes started off slow, with only one in the 1910s and 2 in the 1920s, they took off in the ‘30s and peaked in the ‘40s and ‘50s. By the 1960’s they were in decline even though the maps themselves were still in their heyday, mostly due to the “Atlas” series.

In my opinion, this Golden Age ended, at least for the Map Indexes, in March 1971 with the publishing of the map of Asia. Between May 1918 and March 1971, the Society published 91 of these map indexes including all of the continents, the world, individual countries, and close-ups on particular regions of the planet.

Three images in Nathan’s book show the appearance of these indexes during rise, apex, and fall of this Age. Page 35 shows the first index: May 1918, The Western Theatre of War. On page 39 a “classic” cover of the December 1943, The World is shown. Finally, on page 50 the cover of the February 1968, The United States map index is displayed.

The Beginning of the End

In November 1975 the Society published a two-sided map of the world: one side was a physical map and the other a political map. An index was also published for the political map. I consider this the beginning of the next phase of Map Indexes. The world map was followed in July 1976 by a map of the United States. On the flip side, this map has a cloudless photo-mosaic of the lower 48 entitled Portrait USA. The US map also had an index published. From this point on, the Society only produced pairs of indexes for the United States and the Political World published within a year or so of each other. The corresponding maps, and all of the map pairs that followed, have identical borders. For lack of a better description the borders are a yellow chain link on black bordered by yellow. They have, of course, the letter/number grid superimposed on the border.

In his book Nathan states that the world map was revised in 1978, 1980, and 1981. None of these were distributed as supplements so their numbers probable are quite limited. He also states that an index was published for the 1978. He further says that the US map was revised in 1978 and an index for this non-supplement map was published in 1980. At this point I must confess that I possess none of the indexes Nathan describes from 1975 through 1982. I do have all of the supplement maps and they all have the grid for indexing. I also have the 1978 US map published in January of that year and it is basically a revised version of the 1976 map.

This map is part of a set entitled “Close-up U.S.A.” and it has the letter/number grid needed for indexing. The set does not, however, contain an index for this map. Instead, it contains a 208 page hardbound index for the 15 regional maps included in the set. These maps are the same 15 supplement map of the “Close-up U.S.A.” series published between March 1973 and January 1978. There is a map on one side of each and a poster with cultural and historical information about the region on the other side. They are folded in such a way that the lower right hand corner of the poster side forms a “cover”. A photo of the cover for one of these supplements appears on page 32 of Nathan’s book and the set itself is described on pages 55 and 56. The 15 regional maps in the set are not revision, they bear the same months and years as the supplements, but they are modified in two ways. First, they have a letter/number grid added to their borders; and second, they all are numbered in the upper right hand corner of the covers. These additions allow for a number/letter/number reference in the index.

Getting back to the January 1978 US map, its existence lends credence to Nathan’s claim for the map and index revision he documents, although it is not proof.  As I stated earlier, this is all guess work on my part and I might be reading too much into this one “bone” I have in my possession.

The next pair of maps, and the last that Nathan documents, are the world map of February 1981 and the US map of September 1982. These were both supplements and basically revisions of the earlier map pair. They do, however, have different flip sides with the world map having a map of the ocean floors and the US map having a map of federal land. Since both the world and US maps contain the letter/number grid, I have a high degree of certainty that the indexes for them exist as well. There is a photo of the world index cover on page 52 of Nathan’s book. Nathan’s check box for the world index lists it as being published in 1982 while the cover display clearly is labeled 1981. Without a copy of the index to check for a copyright, I don’t know if the 1982 date is typo or not. Also, the picture shows that the format for the indexes had changed from a portrait to a landscape mode. Whether this was the first index published in this manner or this format dates back as far a 1975 I have no idea.

Post Nathan Indexes

This next paragraph is pure speculation on my part. If the 1978 and 1980 indexes were published and if the Society stuck to the pattern of regular revisions there might be a map pair in the 1984 (world) and 1985 (US) time frame. This is idle speculation on my part, or perhaps wishful thinking.

The next pair of supplement maps was issued in September 1987 (US) and December 1988 (world). They both have the grid and are again basically revisions of the same two maps but, like previous supplement pairs, they have different backs. The US map has a map of territorial growth on its flip side while the world has a poster entitled “Endangered Earth”. These maps coincided with the Society’s centennial. Because of this fact a double map index was published as part of the 100 Years cumulative index package the Society put out.

At that time the Society also published at least one individual index in 1988 for the world. I know this for a fact because I have it in my possession. It has a special, commemorative cover. I’m enclosing a photo of it at the bottom of this post. I do not know if a similar individual index was printed for the US in 1987 or 1988, but I would be surprised if there wasn’t.

If the pattern of index publication I’ve theorized here continued. There would be another pair of indexes in the 1990/1991 time frame and there is at least one. I also have an index for the US dated 1990. This index sports the same cover design as the 1981 world map index displayed in Nathan’s book. I have enclosed a photo of this index as well. As to whether a world index was produced as well, or this index was made as an afterthought to make up for one not being issue in 1987 or 1988, I haven’t a clue. The two indexes I’ve mentioned having were purchased from John Carey, another member of our little group.

The next pair of map supplements issued was the US map in November 1993 and the World Map in February 1994. Neither of these maps has the letter/number grid superimposed on their respective borders. Further, the world map actual spills over the border on the sides since the border is no longer needed for the grid. Otherwise they are revisions of the preceding pair. It is safe to say that not indexes were every produced for these maps. There was one more pair of map supplements printed by the Society, the world in November 2004 and the US in October 2006. Again no grid letters or numbers and, therefore, no index possible. The map indexes as the volume/annual indexes before them are forever out of print. Has the supplement map joined them? Only time will tell.


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Replies to This Discussion

... and here it is.



Your description lists the Southwestern United States map as being dated May 1940. The Southwestern United States map from 1940 was actually in the June issue. The May 1940 map was Europe and the Near East.


Thanks Stephen,

Correction made.

Tom Wilson



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