Elizabeth Mosier

is a writer in Wayne

My husband and I drove to the lecture at the historic Stenton house without looking at a map, our route plotted by GPS. The irony of a disembodied voice directing us to "The Social Life of Maps in 18th-century America" wasn't lost on me. Nor is the novelty of navigating by satellite to the 1730 home of James Logan, secretary to William Penn and (among his many offices) colonial mayor of Philadelphia. I grew up using printed maps. If you're reading this article in the print edition of "the paper," you probably did, too.

There is more to a map than topography - and the sold-out Saturday afternoon talk by Martin Brückner, a professor of English and associate director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware, offers proof. Fifty-plus people - academics and archaeologists, students and armchair geographers - crowd Stenton's stone carriage house to discuss the rise of maps in popular culture in early America. Using images from the exhibit he curated at Winterthur Museum (viewable online at http://commondestinations.winterthur.org), Brückner traced maps from production to purchase to public display and personal use, as they became fashionable objects in the period before and after the Revolutionary War.

Maps introduced North America to European explorers and colonists, confirmed the colonies' independence and documented the expansion of the United States. Literally and figuratively, maps shaped our country's image. But in the Age of Reason, function followed form; though Henry Popple's 1733 A Map of the British Empire in America was criticized for inaccuracy, Benjamin Franklin bought three copies, for his home and to hang in the Pennsylvania State House, wall cover asserting authority and impressing foreign diplomats.

In the 18th century, maps were everywhere: advertised with luxury goods in catalogs and with necessities in the newspaper, displayed in taverns and town halls and high-traffic areas in private homes, printed on parlor screens and ceramics and neckties - "cartifacts" serving no cartographic purpose. If political conflict built the market for maps, the cartouche - or decorative map title - refined it, adding beauty to the criteria for determining a map's value. The brisk business in maps for navigating and decorating redefined what constituted their usefulness, in material and social terms. Owning a map meant economic status, educational achievement, and national identity; showing a map showed you belonged.

This is the "performative function" of maps, to create reality by plotting it. Cartographers, writers, citizens: Our histories derive from this belief in surveyable space.

My home state, Arizona, was settled with land status maps, my father's career selling earth-moving equipment and my mother's selling houses enabled by accurate and alluring cartography. My grandparents were Indiana farmers whose acreage was established by boundary survey. I descend from soldiers rewarded for service in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe with frontier land John Melish encompassed in his 1816 Map of the United States with the contiguous British and Spanish Possessions, regarded as the visual embodiment of Manifest Destiny. My German kin sailed to Philadelphia in 1728 on the ship the James Goodwill and landed in the Perkiomen Valley, perhaps persuaded by the same map James Logan used: Thomas Holme's 1683 A Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pennsylvania in America Divided into Countyes, Townships and Lotts.

A copy of which hangs in the house at Stenton today, on loan from Logan descendant Edward Middleton Drinker. Temporarily, curator Laura Keim explains, as winter's stable temperature and humidity permit. Paper artifacts require careful climate control, and so the map is permanently on deposit with the Library Company of Philadelphia. This shared stewardship makes possible today's exhibit, which features other historic maps from Drinker's collection and treasures imported from Jonathan Cresswell's Philadelphia Print Shop, including a page of Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum, an armchair traveler's compendium of bird's-eye views published in 1572. Brückner's expertise illuminates the display, fostering dialogue among colleagues and strangers. The event illustrates what Philadelphia's cultural institutions maintain: material culture and social life.

Lucky guests, we circulate through the gallery. When I get to the Holme map, I lean in to read it; like everyone else, I'm mentally walking the terrain, looking for emblems of my lived experience, mapping my personal geography. In the way that the past accrues to form identity, reading a map of a familiar place lets us find who we are in where we have been.

Recently, I took a walk with my daughters in Rittenhouse Square. Though I've keyed their map of the city with culture - art, theater, music, history - they wanted to see the apartments I rented in my 20s, data that are suddenly relevant as my older daughter prepares to graduate from college. As we walked, we mapped; my hidden history emerged in stories. I'm still studying Philadelphia, but 35 years after moving east, I'm surprised to find I know this city better than I know my hometown.

Today, we use many tools to locate ourselves in society: geospatial analysis, political maps colored with symbolic red and blue, the Global Positioning System that simplifies geography by eliminating irrelevant details. While these maps provide an overview, they lack the inside stories of, say, the hand-drawn map of my father's hometown, the floor plan of the Indiana farmhouse where my mother was raised - just two of the many maps that brought me here. That is to say, home: a landscape mapped by memory; a place we eventually, with time and attention, come to understand.

To make an appointment to see the "Maps at Stenton" exhibit, call 215-329-7312 or email info@stenton.org. For more information, visit www.stenton.org.

Contact Elizabeth Mosier at www.ElizabethMosier.com.