Pics Or It Didn’t Happen! – Part II

About the Perthes Collection, Its History and Artefacts

While last week we pondered about the implications of research on maps, their unique value and specific histories, this week’s entry will concentrate on the archive, at which our project is located, specifically: The Perthes Collection. This collection is relatively unknown among historians in general but enjoys a solid reputation among a small circle of ‘mapheads’ and enthusiasts of historical cartography. It is part of the Gotha research library and located in the iconic Perthesforum, a building which also contains the State Archive of Thuringia as well as depots and workshops of the cultural heritage foundation Schloss Friedenstein. Even though the Perthesforum houses much more than the Perthes Collection, the fact that it’s called “Perthesforum” indicates the central role that the name Pethes plays in the intellectual life and history of Gotha. In the following, I will explore not only the reputation of the Perthes Collection and its history but also its uniqueness regarding the research of historical cartography.

Die mit Insignien verzierte Front des Perthes-Gebäude in Gotha

Hard to capture without cars: The front of the Perthesforum in Gotha.
Photo: CB.

The Perthes Collection contains the remains of the publishing house Justus Perthes Gotha and its successors. The original publishing house was founded at the end of the 18th century and ceased to exist in 1953 when it was socialized by the Gotha city council. The former owners fled to West Germany and reopened the business under the name Justus Perthes Geographische Verlagsanstalt Darmstadt in the same year, while in Gotha, the publishing house was named VEB Hermann Haack Geographisch-Kartographische Anstalt Gotha. Hermann Haack, who lent his name to the business from now on, had been a senior member of the publishing house itself and a distinguished cartographer. After the German Reunification, the publishing house itself was reunited and reprivatized – and eventually sold to the Stuttgart-based Ernst Klett-Verlag. So, after this lively past, what is contained in the Perthes Collection today?

From Data Collection to Map Design: The Early History of the Publishing House

To answer this question, especially concerning our project Cartographies of Africa and Asia, a small peek into the enterprise’s early history seems useful. Since our project is only concerned with the collection items until 1945, it might suffice to concentrate on the original publishing house, founded by Justus Perthes in Gotha in 1785. This, initially a rather humble enterprise, was from the beginning concentrating on data acquisition and useful but also decorative design: Its primary product was the Almanach de Gotha, which served as a directory to European nobility and had its roots at the court in Gotha. The almanac was a worldwide success and became synonymous with Gotha itself. European aristocracy took care to report births, deaths and weddings to the publishing house to be included in its register; other useful statistical information was also included.

While the almanac ensured the early success of the publishing house, in 1815 Justus Perthes decided to expand the publishing house’s program with cartographic material. It was in 1816, the year of his death, when the first atlas, initiated by Adolf Stieler, was published. Known as Stieler’s Hand-Atlas, it was supplemented and updated until 1944, becoming a trusted source in an age of yearning for cartographic and geographic knowledge. While it had been its association with the nobility that made Gotha famous, its association to maps that finally transformed the publishing house into a worldwide authority on cartographic knowledge.

Many famous cartographers worked with the company after Stieler. Of these, none was perhaps as transformative as August Petermann, who came from London to work in Gotha in 1854. He was the founder of Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt über wichtige neue Erforschungen auf dem Gesammtgebiete der Geographie von Dr. A. Petermann (later shortened to Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen, abbreviated as PGM) in 1855, a scientific journal for the young academic discipline of geography. It was widely received and soon became of global importance. The innovation of the journal was its linkage of geographic news with cartographic production. Short articles on new geographic knowledge, explorations and other news items were combined with maps, which put the news of the day into cartographic perspective. Petermann himself conferred with explorers ‘on the spot’ and was even involved in the organisation of explorations. Thankfully, the journal is now fully digitized.

Notebooks, Sketches, Correspondence, Tools, Maps and Books

While the range of cartographic publications expanded, experts at the company had to keep their knowledge of the related science and data up to date. A wide variety of potential source material was collected: Maps and atlases as well as books, scrapbooks and actual measurements/observations by explorers, surveyors, botanists, ethnologists and others. All these genres are still found in the Perthes Collection, as well as tools and material of the Perthes cartographic workshops.

The whole collection is now divided into three parts, being the archive, which contains to a large extent correspondence of the publishing house; the library, which contains the book collection; and the map collection, which contains all sorts of cartographic material, from sketches to preprints and finalized maps as well as collected maps of diverse origins. The books, the journal, and a number of maps produced by Justus Perthes Gotha are already available and searchable via the Digitale Historische Bibliothek Erfurt/Gotha. Since the Perthes Publishing House was a cartographic authority during the age of exploration and high imperialism, the material on Africa and Asia is particularly extensive and includes documents from Heinrich Barth, Sven Hedin, Theodor Heuglin, and Karl Mauch, among many others.


a map full of handwritten notes and drawings

Bruno Hassenstein reworking a map.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPK_547$113326424 (CC BY-SA 4.0).


Of particular interest are the extensive map collections covering Ethiopia and Japan. Ethiopia was a particularly fascinating place for Europeans in the 19th century and the object of much speculation concerning the origins of Christianity on the African continent. The collection of maps of Japan in contrast was to a large extent due to the involvement of a single actor, cartographer Bruno Hassenstein. Hassenstein learned his craft from August Petermann himself and continued to work at Perthes after Petermann’s death. His particular fascination with Japan led to his Atlas von Japan in the year 1887. While both of these areas are particularly important to the collection, the collection itself extends vastly beyond them, also amassing material on regions like West Africa, South Africa, Central Asia, China, and many more.

Researching Cartography in its Immediate Context

So – which insights does the collection offer?

itinerary draft of the Nakasendo

An itinerary map of the Nakasendo (Takasaki to Tokio) from 1875.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPK_547$112195776 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

 First, it allows studying cartographic material in its immediate context. While other map archives mostly amass the finalized product, the Perthes Collection is the archive of a publishing house, where maps were produced and used for the production of subsequent editions. Drafts and preprints have survived; and the corresponding archival collection offers the correspondence of the actors and the tools of the workers, while the library of the Perthes Collection comprises books that were consulted in the process of planning and designing maps. The collection is therefore a good starting point to connect the dots of bigger exploration enterprises, which involved global actors, geographical societies, and other entities.

Secondly, the rare incident of such a rich collection of an actual commercial company offers vast opportunities for economic and labour history – even more so when concerning the narrower field of the history of publishing and publishing houses.

Thirdly, since the publishing house stayed relevant throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the range of material is breath-taking. Being part of the cartographic community even before the advent of colonialism in Germany, Perthes was also an active publishing house during the Third Reich and even beyond 1945. Since the 1950s, the print production of its successors in East and West even allows insights into differences and similarities of mapping in both German states. Therefore, the Perthes Collection sheds light on the changing perceptions and attitudes of German geographers and scientists to other countries and their own over a long period of time. The political implications of doing cartography in Germany were woven into the material and merit a close reading.

This is the second of three parts of the editorial of our blog “Mapping Africa and Asia”, which presents finds and findings of the project “Cartographies of Africa and Asia (1800–1945)”, conducted by the Centre of Transcultural Studies and the Gotha Research Library (both University of Erfurt). The next and final part of the editorial will engage with the chances and pitfalls of the digitization of historical maps.

Next Week: Pics Or It Didn’t Happen [Part III]: Digitizing Maps: Availability vs. Authenticity?

Further Reading

Demhardt, Imre Josef/Schulte, Birgit A. (eds.), Der Erde ein Gesicht geben. Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen und die Anfänge der modernen Geographie in Deutschland, Erfurt 2006.

Dix, Andreas, Das Fremde verstehen. Strategien der visuellen Erschließung Japans durch Europäer in der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts. In:, Sektion Gegenwart und Künste, Medien, Ästhetik, No. 2, 2020 (13 pages), (30.7.2021).

Meyer, Philipp Justus, Kartographie und Weltanschauung. Visuelle Wissensproduktion im Verlag Justus Perthes 1890-1945, Göttingen 2021.

Schröder, Iris, Eine Weltkarte aus der Provinz. Die Gothaer Chart of the World und die Karriere eines globalen Bestsellers. In: Historische Anthropologie, Vol. 25 (2017), pp. 343–366.

Schröder, Iris/Dorsch, Sebastian, Introduction: Spatiotemporalities of Cartographic Empire-Building. In: Meyer, Holt/ Rau, Susanne/ Waldner, Katharina (eds.), SpaceTime of the Imperial, Berlin 2017, pp. 333-337.

Weigel, Petra, Das Kartenproduktionsarchiv des Justus Perthes Verlags in der Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. In: Syré, Ludger (ed.), Ressourcen für die Forschung. Spezialsammlungen in Regionalbibliotheken, Frankfurt a.M. 2018, pp. 125-141.

Weigel, Petra/Siegel, Steffen (eds.), Die Werkstatt des Kartographen. Materialien und Praktiken visueller Welterzeugung, München 2011.


Cite this blog post
Claudia Berger (2021, August 4). Pics Or It Didn’t Happen! – Part II. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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1 Response

  1. Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn more about (and describe) the years 1989/1990 at least to 2003? What happened in Gotha, in Darmstadt, during this incredibly difficult, extremely painful phase of German-German (publishing) history? Why was Ernst Klett Verlag able to take over two publishing houses in 1992, and later concentrated the three editorial departments of geography or cartography from Darmstadt, Gotha and Stuttgart in Gotha? How exciting it would be to also review the eventful history of the “siblings” VEB Hermann Haack Gotha and “Justus Perthes Geographische Verlagsanstalt Darmstadt” from 1953 to 1992 – or also the different roles and views of Hermann Haack in more than 50 years of his work in Gotha … Why did it take another ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall until the “Perthes Collection” with its three large basic holdings – map collection, library and publishing archive(s) – could finally be considered permanently and sustainably secured at its historical location in Gotha? What became of the Gotha-based Justus Perthes publishing house after it was taken over by Klett? The study of the Perthes estate offers many more exciting, thematically broad starting points than “only cartography”.

    Translated with (free version)

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