Five students in the geography room of hte Girls' Upper School,1926
Five students exploring tactile maps and globes in the geography room of the Girls’ Upper School in 1926. Some of these maps include class-made plasticine work highlighting areas of local interest. Plasticine was used by students to create tactile elements or boundaries.

Early Tactile Maps

Tactile maps use raised and depressed surfaces, as well as a variety of textures, to indicate geographic features and boundaries. In the latter part of the 18th century, R. Weisenberg, a man who was blind from Mannheim, Germany, “experimented with maps made tangible by the application of various materials, such as pieces of glass and water” and later silk threads of various dimensions, but these proved to be impractical or to tear too easily. (Coon, 1956)

Guillie, in France, in 1819, was the first to record instructions that called for the use of pasted wire not only in maps but also planispheres and globes. Still, prior to the 1830s, tactile maps were usually custom-made for a few individuals who were blind.

Geography at Perkins

Samuel Gridley Howe had traveled extensively and knew that his students would need to understand geography in order to function in the world. In 1837, Howe commissioned Stephen Preston Ruggles to make the large tactile globe currently on display in the Perkins Museum. In concept and size, this globe is a major milestone in map-making with its 13-foot circumference and construction from over 600 pieces of wood. (Coon, 1956). Ruggles also made several tactile maps made of carved wood and a variety of additional materials for the geography curriculum. Howe was among the first to develop methods that allowed for the production of tactile maps in quantity. Perkins embossed paper maps that were published as atlases in the 1830s.

Relief Maps for the Public

Later in the 19th century relief maps were made for the general public, and these were also employed in schools for the blind. Excellent productions of such embossed maps are extant for the period 1840-50, notably those made in Vienna and Paris. Martin Kunz of Germany and Harald Thilander of Sweden both produced tactile maps that were used in schools for the blind in Europe and the United States. These paper maps were embossed in map molds. They had raised areas to indicate landmass, lines, and textures to indicate bodies of water and used braille for labels.

WPA Maps Project

During the Depression (1936-1938), a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project at Perkins prepared embossed maps in loose-leaf form to parallel the best atlases, and 350 titles were completed. This was the first complete embossed historical atlas ever attempted. (Coon, 1956)

Map Materials

The American Printing House (APH) produced hand-carved tactile maps in wood from 1875 until about 1950. Later, plastic replaced wood. Embossed paper maps were also produced at APH.

Research in tactile perception has led to many innovations in the production of maps for students who are blind including standard symbols, attention to size and level of detail. Developments in plastic-forming processes and electronics have influenced the production of maps and globes leading to innovations such as overlays for diagrams and talking globes.

The Ruggles Globe

The oversized globe on display in the Perkins Museum is 13 feet in circumference and probably the first of its kind in America. It has twice been restored, once in 1940 and again in 2004, and continues to stand as a proud reminder of the many “firsts” in Perkins’ long history.

The following description comes from a 1957 article called “Some Three-Dimensional Relief Globes“ by William Briesmeister, which was published in The Geographical Review:

“What is possibly the oldest three-dimensional relief globe made in the United States stands in the lobby of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. It bears a plate with the following inscription: ‘Terrestrial globe made for the use of the blind by Steven P. Ruggles, 1837, at the expense of John Preston, Esq.’ The globe is about 53 inches in diameter and consists of some 700 pieces of wood glued together so well that no cracks have ever shown up. It revolves in any direction. The land areas are modeled of paper-mache composition with emery and were painted to represent the lands as known to man when the globe was made; it was restored by Nelson Coon in 1940. The globe is probably the first made for the use of the blind in this country. It is an heirloom that has stood the test of time and is still in use at the School for the Blind.”

Entrance hall with oval rotunda and large globe at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston.
The large tactile globe made by Stephn Preston Ruggles on display in the round entry way of what was then known as the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, in 1900, in South Boston.

Related Resources

Explore more resources on this topic, including related articles and digitized resources from the Archives.

Suggested citation for scholars

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Geography. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.