The Most Popular Atlas Ever Published

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this superlative description was a reference to The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, however, the uncharacteristic hubris used in this advertising actually concerns Bartholomew’s Citizen’s Atlas of the World.

The examples of advertising found in earlier entries (Likeable Advertising: An Oxymoron?) are the fruits of the pared down, elegant aesthetic of the early twentieth century. This poster is an excellent example of the exuberant extravagance of the late nineteenth century. No angle is left uncovered, no statement too bold, no drawing too offensive! Although Bartholomew were not alone in presenting such clutter and jumble they were in a minority position of being able to design, execute and print their own advertising, not only a distinct commercial advantage but an aide to ostentation.

This poster was printed on 3 February, 1898, to advertise the publishing of the first edition of the Citizen’s Atlas. The atlas was produced in conjunction with the London publisher George Newnes Ltd., a typical Bartholomew business practise. The atlas would go on to make eight editions, the final of which was published in 1952. Its longevity prompted a change in name too and accordingly the atlas was latterly known as the The 20th Century Citizen’s Atlas of the World.

The atlas contained a 134 page gazetteer, 120 plates of maps, 17 pages of geographical statistics, an introductory essay by John George Bartholomew (1860-1920) and the flags of principle nations. Whilst we may think of our world as an open book today, convinced that ready access to satellite technology renders every nook and cranny accessible to us, even from our own homes, this was not the case when the atlas was first published. As John George so eloquently expressed:

“Our World is but a star in a universe of stars. Yet, many of its lands and seas are so vast and inaccessible that, even after centuries of exploration, there are great areas of which we know very little, and as great areas of which we know nothing at all”.


“Religious fanaticism, war, slavery, and commercial jealousy may form barriers as unsurmounable [sic] as polar ice”.

It was a commercial success, not a guarantee in the delicately poised world of cartographic publishing. Newspaper clippings, diligently kept by Bartholomew, attest to its popularity, although this may also be the consequence of selectively only keeping the positive ones. One in particular, from a publication called Tit-Bits (to whom Bartholomew supplied maps and so were perhaps a little biased) includes an interview with John George. In one exchange he is asked:

“In fact, you do as the historian does – select from a mass of crude material?”
“Just so; the mass in many cases is greater than most people would think. Look at this.” Here Mr. Bartholomew drew out a small map, little over a foot square “There is a map for “The Citizen’s Atlas”; to produce it we had to reduce and consult no fewer than fifty large maps, and now the public get in this map for about a penny what originally cost many thousands of pounds to prepare.”

And therein lays the importance of this atlas, it was affordable. As the Tit-Bits article reveals:

“Every morning in our newspapers we read of wars in one part of the world, gold discoveries in another, explorations of unknown regions in the north, and commercial exploitation of new countries in the south. To intelligently grasp all these daily developments in the world’s history a good atlas is absolutely necessary. But, good atlases are expensive, and the average citizen cannot afford two or three guineas for such a work.”

To put that into perspective 2 guineas would equate to around £175 today whereas the Citizen’s Atlas sold for £40.

It may not be Bartholomew’s most enduringly popular or renowned work, these titles rightly belong to their half inch mapping and Times Atlases, but the humble Citizen’s Atlas stood for everything that mattered most to Bartholomew; it was cartographically excellent, visually attractive and sufficiently cheap to democratise access to geographical knowledge.