One word to describe the Mississippi river is long.

From source to mouth it's 3,778km, 10 states, 9 cities and three double consonants long.
In short it is North America's longest river and a water highway leading from the Gulf of Mexico into the Great lakes.

But say you were an 19th century settler heading up river on your journey into the continents vast interior. How do you know where you're going? And how will you know when you get there?

In the age before smartphone maps the traveller could have relied upon the Ribbon Map of the Father of Water.

Advertisement

An eleven-foot scroll pinpointing each settlement on the river, the map could easily be rolled up and carried when not in use. Like a kind of cartographic al loo roll.

The travel oddity called the Colony and Fiarchild's patent ribbon map" came about in 1866. One such ribbon exists in the David Rumsey Map Collection.

At one end, printed where the river delta drains out into the gulf is the patent belonging to the inventors Myron Coloney and Sidney B. Fairchild – and a rough estimate that steamboat varying "from two to four cents per mile, Staterooms and meals included."

Close guidance: In an age before smartphones, the ribbon gave travellers a pocket-sized guide. Photo / David Rumsey Map collection
Close guidance: In an age before smartphones, the ribbon gave travellers a pocket-sized guide. Photo / David Rumsey Map collection

It is an oddity. The beauty of the "strip map" explains Jim Akerman, Curator of Maps at Chicago's Newberry Library, is that it is "organised around a specific route of travel.

"It's meant to give you very close guidance," he told Atlas Obscura.
However, the idea of Colony and Fairchild's to of patent the map seems foolish, given how old the idea is.

The itinerary maps, though rare now, were once a regular way of navigating the world.

From Romans drawing road information, though to printed pilgrimages giving guidance through Europe they read a little like a list of directions given by wrote: 'Right at the landmark,' 'left at the fork in the road,' etc.

The gulf: The catographical bog roll displays all 3,778km of the Mississippi. Photo / David Rumsey Map Collection
The gulf: The catographical bog roll displays all 3,778km of the Mississippi. Photo / David Rumsey Map Collection

They lend themselves well to road trips or river journeys.

Advertisement

While the river might shift and change, making the roll of little use to ship captains, there is one emerging market that this sort of novelty map was aimed at: tourists cruising the Mississippi.