Joan Blaeu began publishing atlases with his father Williem Blaeu in Amsterdam in 1635. After Williem’s death in 1638, Joan continued to publish new atlas editions on his own. The Altlas Maior was his final and grandest atlas project. It was published in multi-volume sets between 1662 and 1665, with versions in Latin, French, Dutch, German, and Spanish. It was the largest and most expensive book published in the 17th century, containing over 600 maps.
Due to the large number of maps, the beautiful hand coloring, and the quality of the materials and typography, Blaeu’s atlas was considered a status symbol among the wealthy. Purchasers often might further embellish their sets with custom binding, further gilding and coloring, or a specially made storage cabinet.
Washington University Libraries’ Blaeu Atlas was a gift of Eric P. Newman and contains the last two volumes (volumes 8-9) of the Dutch version of the Atlas. Included in this edition are 18 maps of Spain, 14 of Africa, 16 of Asia, and 28 of America. It is currently on permanent display in the new Newman Exploration Center on the A Level of Olin Library.
When you visit the Exploration Center, you will notice that the maps in the Atlas are brilliantly colored. Unlike a painting of the same age, these pages have not been exposed to light and air for extended periods of time, preserving the pigments in the ink. The Atlas exhibit is currently displaying a map of America that depicts California as an island, but we will be periodically turning the pages for both preservation and viewing purposes, so check back to see different maps!
Interested in old maps? Check out our Maps and Gazetteers Research Guide. For historical local maps of St. Louis, you can also view the St. Louis Area Historic Maps guide. In addition to the Blaeu atlas, Special Collections also has a number of old maps and atlases, most notably a leaf from the famous Mercator-Hondius world atlas. Please contact a librarian if you would like help locating any of these materials!