Saturday, August 11, 2012

Vintage Hawaiiana - Ruth Taylor White Maps of Hawaii

I love maps.  I can stare at them for ages, remembering the places I have been and dreaming of the places I have yet to visit.   And look what I found--vintage maps of the Hawaiian islands by Ruth Taylor White from the 1930s.  Heaven!
Images were long used to enliven maps (think sea monsters in the oceans of 16th century examples), but pictorial maps found a wide audience in the 20th century.  As means of transportation improved, more people could travel to more places, leading to the increased need for maps.  A map could delineate the roads and geography of the place, but it could also be used as an enticement.  Clever and appealing pictures added to a map helped create an image of the place that made it irresistible.  This type of illustrated map is sometimes called a cartograph, or pictograph.
Signature on the Oahu map--Ruth would later drop her married name when signing her work
Enter Ruth Taylor--traveler, illustrator, cartographer. 

Born in 1899, Taylor and her family, like many, headed persistently west in the late 19th century, moving from East Coast to West in the span of about 20 years and finally settling in California. According to the 1920 US Census, Taylor seemed to be settling into a pretty normal life--she was married to Leonard White and living in Phoenix, Arizona.  Leonard was a life insurance salesman.  Two kids followed, and so did divorce.  With limited information, it’s easy to fill in the gaps and imagine a disastrous mismatch of temperaments, but all we know is that Ruth and her children moved to California and she began working as an illustrator.
From Art Deco Blog
Ruth’s artistic training is unclear, but her family proved to be very important in her future work.  Several of her early jobs were linked to her brother, Frank J. Taylor (1894-1972).  Frank was a journalist and writer, served in World War I, and attended Stanford University.  That school connection probably helped Ruth earn one of her early commissions, the cover of the November 1927 The Stanford Illustrated Review.  Her detailed style brings humorous life to the crowd attending a football game.
From the National Parks website
Ruth and her brother moved in an artistic and adventurous circle in the San Francisco area and the siblings shared an interest in the majestic nature found in the country's national parks.  Frank was married to Katherine Ames, who was also an author.  Like Frank, Ames was interested in nature and travel and she wrote books on nearby Yosemite National Park.  Her 1926 Lights and Shadows of Yosemite featured the first published photographs by Ansel Adams.  Frank wrote popular books on the national parks and Ruth provided illustrations for his 'Oh, Ranger!’ A Book About the National Parks (1928) and Grand Canyon Country (1930), both of which went into multiple printings.
Ruth’s style crystallized in the 1930s, when she was at her busiest and most peripatetic.  In the Spring of 1930, she left the kids at home in California and spent five weeks in Hawaii.  Her trip was likely prompted by a commission from the Hawaii Tourist Bureau to draw the maps of the Hawaiian islands that I just acquired, as printed versions turn up by 1931.  The four largest islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island and a map of the entire island chain are included in the set, which would have been handed out by the Bureau to visitors.
Massachusetts, from Our USA:  A Gay Geography, 1935.  From Barry Lawrence Ruderman.
These Hawaiian maps may have been the seed for a larger project Ruth undertook, again with her brother Frank.  Our USA:  A Gay Geography, published in 1935, was an atlas filled with whimsical and charming maps of all the states in the union, as well as American territories.  The New York Times said in their review, ‘Any one who remembers his childhood efforts to visualize Kentucky as something more than the green spot on the map, or New York as the pink State, will appreciate this volume. Brilliantly colored pictorial maps of the same order which have been amusing adults for the past decade show the United States and their Territories as active, picturesque entities.’ (NYT, 17 Nov 1935).  This book is very tough to find these days, even in libraries, and sadly is most often found dismembered to sell the maps individually.
This is where I live now--Hagerstown, Maryland, at the top left.  There is indeed an organ factory here.  From Saturated Color on Etsy.
So now you have the background for my sweet maps of Hawaii.  These are likely later reprints from the 1940s of Taylor's original 1930 illustrations, published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and given out by the Tourist Bureau to servicemen.  The nice woman from whom I bought these four maps said that her father got them in Hawaii when he was there during World War II and that they had been rolled up in the original mailing tube ever since.
Taylor’s maps aren’t about geographical exactitude, but rather the people and character of the place--what will lure you there and what you will remember when you have left.   And this is decidedly a rich white folks’ view of the islands--people with the money and leisure time to travel were the intended audience of these maps (discussions of imperialism will have to wait for another post).  Golf courses, yacht clubs and polo grounds are generally noted, but so, too, are heiaus (temples), locations connected to Hawaiian royalty and traditional island activities such as hula, surfing and hukilau (a type of net fishing).  Taylor devised a palatable combination of the familiar and exotic, an ideal paradise for tourists.
I’m fascinated by these views into Hawaii’s past.  So much has changed (some might say not necessarily for the better), but many places and their attributes are comfortingly the same.  The big banyan tree is still in Lahaina, there are still surfers in Hanalei Bay and coffee still grows in Kona.  It’s interesting to see so many more Hawaiian place names used, the vast pineapple and sugar fields that are no more and the old churches that can still be found dotting the landscape.
Ruth Taylor, Map of Treasure Island, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939.  From Beinecke Library, Yale.
Ruth Taylor continued to travel. In 1939, at the age of 40, she was in Japan (she did a map of the Philippines that may date from that trip) and as political tensions increased in Asia, she wisely returned home to the San Francisco area.  That year, she rendered a cartograph of Treasure Island, the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition, a copy of which can be found at Beinecke Library at Yale.

Remarkably, during World War II, Ruth kept up her international wandering.  The end of the war found her in Calcutta, India, and by September 1945 she arrived back in New York, headed to her brother’s home in Los Altos, California.  The wine map of California below is the only work I've found of hers in the post-war years.
Wine map of California by Taylor, late 1940s.  From Barry Lawrence Ruderman
I haven’t been able to find out a lot more about Ruth Taylor in her later years, but would love to learn more about her and her work.  This little bit of research was pretty quickly done and I didn’t have access to all the resources I would have liked (I live in the boonies, remember).   There are many more avenues to be explored!  If you have any corrections, or additional information about her, please do be in touch.

© All text and images are copyright of Jeni Sandberg 2012-2015


  1. Hi I found a great magazine cover done by Ruth Taylor. Check out the December 1933 issue of Motor Land. I have a scan of it if you are interested let me know!

    1. Oh, I would love to see it! You can find my email address on my website,, under the about tab.

  2. This is fascinating. Ruth Taylor was my great aunt and I have a couple of her map prints that I found in a shop on Maui. I'd be very interested in where you found her bio info.

    1. Hi Curt--So nice to hear from a relative of the lady herself! You can find a remarkable amount of information online with a crazy amount of digging, though sources must of course be considered very critically. If I had the time, I would love to do more primary research on Ruth in New York and California. If you have more family information, I would be very happy to hear it! You can find my contact information on my website,, under the about tab. Thanks for being in touch!

  3. I too acquired a mailing tube with the the four Hawaiian maps distributed to servicemen during the war. My Grandfather was a SeaBee stationed at Pearl Harbor during the war years and he sent them home. He passed away in 1985; at that time my Grandmother then lived with my parents until she moved into assisted living and then into an acute care facility where she passed away in 2003. My parents have moved to an apartment and I acquired the prints from them when they "downsized" their home. I've had them matted and framed and although they aren't in "mint" condition they are very nice and they are still very colorful.

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