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A Relief Map of Tennessee

mapUnique among the thousands of maps held by the University Libraries is a ten-foot-long plaster relief map of the state of Tennessee. Lettered on the map is its provenance: A Relief Map of Tennessee Colored to Show the Typical Soils . . . Compiled by the Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station . . . Modeled by Edwin E. Howell . . . 1897.

This year the Libraries decided that the hundred-year-old map was due for conservation treatment. Over the course of several months a conservator repaired cracks in the plaster, removed a yellowing varnish (apparently applied in an earlier, misguided attempt at preservation), and restored colors to an approximation of the original tones.

When the UT Agricultural Experiment Station commissioned the plaster relief map in 1897 to illustrate the results of their six-year study of Tennessee soils, they turned to a well-known commercial map and model maker of the day, geologist Edwin Eugene Howell (1845–1911).

The Microcosm, Howell’s successful Washington, D.C. business, sold relief maps (also called relief models or terrain models) to museums and schools throughout the country. In the late nineteenth century, such relief maps were popular teaching tools. Your great-grandparents may have learned about physical geography by tracing the ridges, valleys, plains, and mountains of one of Howell’s relief maps.

Howell was, in fact, a pioneer of terrain modeling in the United States. It is said that his 1870 model of the island of San Domingo was the first relief map ever made in America. And his terrain model of the Grand Canyon, revealing to the American public the astonishing depth of the Arizona chasm, made a sensation at the US Centennial Exposition in 1876.

Howell took part in one of the epic scientific ventures of his generation, the Great Surveys of the American West. These government-sponsored expeditions to explore and map the vast Western territories were the predecessors of the United States Geological Survey.

In 1865, Howell had joined Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, where he studied natural history and learned to prepare specimens for museums. Through his friendship at Ward’s with geologist Grove Karl Gilbert, Howell enlisted in George M. Wheeler’s survey west of the 100th meridian, serving as a geologist on Wheeler’s expedition in 1872 and 1873. In 1874 he joined the survey of the Rocky Mountain region under John Wesley Powell, the larger-than-life one-armed former Civil War major whose crew had made the celebrated 1869 traverse of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

A few years after leaving his position on Powell’s survey, Howell moved to Washington, established the Microcosm, and began specializing in the modeling of relief maps.

Our beautifully restored relief map of Tennessee now hangs in the Paul M. and Marion T. Miles Reading Room in the John C. Hodges Library. It is dedicated to the Mallicote family in celebration of their many contributions to the University of Tennessee and the UT Libraries.

Watch our video on conservation of the Tennessee relief map below or at

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