Emma Willard, Chronographer and American history

Emma Willard
Troy, New York, USA
42° 43′ 54″ N, 73° 41′ 33″ W
19th century

Emma Willard was an American educator who created an innovative system of historical representation: the chronographer. This system of graphic representation made it possible to represent historical information in a geographical and chronological context, and more broadly, to map time.

The struggle for women's education

Emma Willard (1787-1870) was an American educator and women’s rights activist who worked for access to education for women. In fact, at that time, they could only receive the more basic education and men’s education was much more developed, reserving for them subjects such as advanced mathematics, philosophy, geography, history and science. But Emma Willard was educated through family discussions, exposing her to national and world politics, philosophy and history. It made her very aware of the inequalities in education and worked throughout her life to open higher education to women.

After working at a female academy, she saw the poor and inadequate education available there and decided to open her own boarding school in her home. Her dedication to women’s education led her to write A Plan for Improving Female Education in 1919. This pamphlet aimed to open the first women’s school that would guarantee access to higher education. She presented it to the New York Legislative Assembly but the legislators did not support it, for some of them the education of women was contrary to the will of God. However, the governor offered to open a seminary for women, with public funding. But the promised funding was never forthcoming, and Emma Willard had to struggle again to find funds before she could finally establish herself in Troy, New York.
In 1921, the Troy Female Seminary opened its doors as the first school in the United States to offer higher education to women. It integrated the same subjects as the male education programs: mathematics, philosophy, history, geography and science.

Educate through images

Emma Willard was also noted for the innovative educational manuals she published. They were dedicated to both men and women but emphasized the status of women as the main determinant of whether a society could be defined as civilized. These textbooks were primarily history and geography books, with a particular emphasis on visual representations of complex information. Emma Willard demonstrated her creativity and pedagogy and took advantage of the advent of new printing techniques to bring together visual information and educational expansion. For example, in A System of Universal Geography written with William Woodbridge in 1924, she combined her creativity with her knowledge of cartography. The textbook includes a map of the Amazon River, which is in fact a visual metaphor: its tributaries illustrate the evolution of the Roman Empire, a branching system that she exploited differently on many occasions.

Progress Of The Roman Empire, Illustrated By The course Of The River Amazon. (Accompany) A System of Universal Geography, On The Principles of Comparison and Classification; By William Channing Woodbridge
Progress Of The Roman Empire, Illustrated By The course Of The River Amazon. (Accompany) A System of Universal Geography, On The Principles of Comparison and Classification; By William Channing Woodbridge, 1824
Mapping the time, the Chronographer

In her educational manuals, Emma Willard developed a system of her own invention: the Chronographer. This system of graphic representation allowed the representation of historical information in a geographical and chronological context. These sketches, located halfway between the timeline and the map, functioned as mental palaces, allowing the student to visually represent the information to be retained.
Willard’s intention was to invest chronology with a sense of perspective. She appropriated the timeline model by adding a new dimension. According to her, the most recent events of the individuals seem more important to them while the most distant in time seem more foreign to them. She adds a spatial dimension to these sketches allowing for better visualization and appropriation of information.

The Progress Of The Roman Empire, Illustrated By The Course of the River Amazon laid the first foundations for popularizing this kind of illustration in textbooks but it is with Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire in 1836 that Willard popularized the first codes of chronographers.

Picture of nations or perspective sketch of the course of empire. To accompany Willard's Universal history in perspective Chronographer
Picture of nations or perspective sketch of the course of empire. To accompany Willard's Universal history in perspective

Although it seems to be difficult to read, the three stages of humanity can be distinguished. The first part until the birth of Christ is symbolized by a bright light in the middle of time. Then the discovery of America separates the second cycle from the third cycle, the modern era. Each civilization is represented according to its relations with the others and is emancipated from any geographical belonging. Thus China is not represented as a society with multiple ramifications, its contours are delimited to signal the isolation of the country. This makes it possible to represent the evolutions and successions of civilizations, to hierarchize them by placing them on a common temporality. Moreover, as time goes by, the stream widens, demonstrating that history has become more relevant as it unfolds and gets closer to the student’s own life. Historical time is not uniform but dimensional. And its perception is not absolute but relative.

Spatializing time, the allegory of the temple
The Temple of Time. Invented by Emma Willard, 1846

Emma Willard marketed many “maps of time” by varying the devices. In 1840 she published Temple of Time where she experimented with an attempt to integrate chronology with geography by relying on perspective. The flow of time that she represented earlier as ramifications now occupies the floor of the temple. Its architecture, its pillars are the centuries, structural elements of history, embodied by the eminent figures of the time. The allegory continues, the founding pillars support the most important warriors, men of letters, theologians for each century. Moreover, the perspective of the temple allows to illustrate that recent history is spatially closer to the spectator. Willard takes up the idea of the dimensionality of time, drawing the reader’s attention to recent history (as in the Sketch of the Course of Empire), the elements diminishing as they move backwards in time. This temple of memory is a kind of spatialized mnemonic. Although the temple of time seems difficult to read, she likens it to a traditional map reading to explain the brain’s conversion of visual images into information. Her attempt to map time has the ambition to make the same mechanism of conversion of visual language that the brain performs when reading a map work.

In a map, great countries made up of plains, mountains, seas, and rivers, are represented by what is altogether unlike them; viz., lines, shades, and letters, on a flat piece of paper; but the divisions of the map enable the mind to comprehend, by proportional space and distance, what is the comparative size of each, and how countries are situated with respect to each other. So this picture made on paper, called a Temple of Time, though unlike duration, represents it by proportional space. It is as scientific and intelligible, to represent time by space, as it is to represent space by space.

Chronographers to embellish American history
Emma Willard's American Temple of Time, 1860
Emma Willard's American Temple of Time, 1860

Emma Willard used the Temple of Time on several occasions, notably to put simplified American history into perspective. This American temple of time (1860) is an exercise where a temporal event is to be placed on a map in the background, making temporality and spatiality coincide.
At the end of her career she reinterprets the image of the tree, not to represent a filiation such as a family tree, but rather to illustrate the diversity of events that make up a nation. This visualization of the formation of a nation also smoothes history and presents it as a linear evolution towards the good. Moving from chaos to a unified and peaceful nation without presenting a violent image. A nationalist practice that Emma Willard disseminated in all her productions dealing with American history. However, it will eventually clash with the course of history and will be weakened by the outbreak of the American Civil War, calling into question the linear and harmonious evolution of the history of the tree of time.

Willard's Chronographer of American History. History of the U. States or Republic of America. Historic Tree, 1845

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