The maps of Emanuel Scheyer

Serendipity and the history of subway maps

Sometimes historical research relies on chance connections and discoveries. And lucky discoveries sometimes help to explain several different historical puzzles. One such serendipitous connection happened to me recently.  At the map event at the New York Transit Museum on November 17, I made an exciting connection that gives a new line of inquiry into the genesis of the Hagstrom subway map, and provides possible clues to the IND subway map and the Salomon subway map.

Who drew the Hagstrom subway maps?

At the Museum’s map evening, Mark Ovenden, Eddie Jabbour, and I were giving illustrated talks on different aspects of transit maps, and I was exhibiting a selection of maps from my personal collection (alongside some unique items from the Museum). In this talk, I happened to show the following zoomed-in details of the 1936 Hagstrom map, showing the quirky drawings of bridges and tunnels. (According to John Landers, this is the first edition of this style  of Hagstrom subway map, although I know there were black-and-white editions in the 1920s.)

Detail from subway map by Hagstrom Map Company, 1936
Detail from subway map by Hagstrom Map Company, 1936

After the presentations, we were all milling around chatting and talking about the maps on display, and I was approached by someone named Larry Scheyer, who told me that his grandfather had drawn those Hagstrom maps .

I have been trying for some years to get a handle on the genesis of the Hagstrom subway map.  But after the death of Andrew G. Hagstrom in 1977 and the company’s takeover by Langenscheidt in 1981 and by Kappa in 2010, the archives of the original company have essentially disappeared.  So I was very pleased to meet Mr Scheyer.

About Emanuel Scheyer

Emanuel Scheyer was born in New York on September 8, 1884. He attended City College and was awarded a degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1907.  While in San Francisco, he witnessed the Great Earthquake and Fire of San Francisco in 1906 [7], which motivated him to become a civil engineer [8]. He taught physics there briefly.  The following year, he moved back to New York and worked as an Engineering Draftsman for the Office of the State Engineer and Surveyor for a few months, and then worked for the New York State Public Services Commission (PSC) from 1908 to the 1920s, as a designer of subway and elevated railroads.  Some time in the 1920s he transferred to the City Board of Transportation (BoT). It is known that Scheyer worked on the IND system, and we can reasonably assume that his move from the PSC to the BoT was to allow him to work on the early plans for the wholly new Independent Subway System (later known as the IND), which were developed by the NYC Transit Commission from 1921 onwards. He remained with the Board until the subways were transferred from the BoT to the Transit Authority (TA) in 1953. One of his last engineering projects was to help design the conversion to subway use of the old LIRR to the Rockaways, which had been burnt down in 1950.  The City bought the line from the LIRR in 1950 and reopened it as an extension of the IND network in June 1956. Scheyer’s final job title (as of July 1954) was Division Engineer for Design [1] and he retired in 1955 at the age of 71, and died in 1973, aged 88 [2].

Emanuel Scheyer and the Hagstrom map

Most of the above biography can be gleaned from the Census reports and the obituary in the New York Times.  What is more interesting is what I learned from Emanuel’s grandson Lawrence (and, through Larry, from Emanuel’s son, Daniel). As part of Emanuel’s work for the BoT (and possibly even for the PSC), he provided the Hagstrom Map Company with a map of the collective subway network.  During these years, the IRT, BMT and IND were rivals and their corporate maps showed only their own lines.  The BoT had oversight of the City’s transportation system (besides opening up its own IND line from 1932) so it was natural for the BoT to take the lead on this. It was Emanuel Scheyer who inserted in the Hagstrom map the tiny illustrations of trains and trucks in the bridges and tunnels and the ferry boats, as well as more practical features such as the thin lines indicating cross-streets.  The earliest of the new style of subway maps issued by Hagstrom was published in 1936. Before that Hagstrom had since 1916 produced street maps that included subway lines, but the new subway maps showed the transit system abstracted from the mass of streets and other topographical detail and included only a few cross streets and landmarks.

When the Board of Transportation used the Hagstrom map as its official map from 1943 to 1956, Scheyer provided the relevant liaison.

Emanuel Scheyer and the IND subway map?

Given that Emanuel Scheyer was involved in the early design of the IND system, and given his mapping experience with Hagstrom, we can speculate that he might have been involved in the the innovative maps of the IND subway (also known initially as the Eighth Avenue Subway), such as these:

1938 IND subway map, courtesy of New York Transit Museum
1937 IND excerpt
1937 IND subway map, excerpt

Emanuel Scheyer and the map after Hagstrom’s?

In the Transit Museum Archives last year, I came across an interesting memo, dated July 1952,  from William Jerome Daly, (BoT Secretary) to James Griffin (BoT Chief Engineer) in which he laments that the Board does not have a map of its own and is entirely reliant on buying stocks of maps from Hagstrom, even though they are based on information supplied by the Board.  Daly ends thus: “it is suggested that a tracing of the rapid transit lines of the New York City Transit System be prepared and kept up to date so that the Board will not be at mercy and monopoly of a private map maker. The three subway divisions could be shown by distinguishing lines or some other symbol which I am sure that Mr Scheyer is thoroughly qualified to work out.”  Did Mr Scheyer even begin this task before his retirement in 1955? If he did, was this internal map connected with the Route and Section Map? (The earliest such map I have seen is from 1961, but there may be earlier ones.)

Emanuel Scheyer and the Salomon map

Salomon banner
George Salomon, designer of the first diagrammatic map of the New York Subway, 1958

In 1937, George Salomon emigrated from Germany to the USA and, in 1940, he moved to New York.  Straight away he started jotting down his ideas for an improved map and wayfinding system for the New York Subway.  In 1955, however, his work intensified and he began dedicating all of his evenings and weekends to this project. That year and the next he produced detailed prospectuses for the TA and, in September 1956 he was commissioned to design a new subway map, which in 1958 was to replace the Hagstrom map that the TA had been relying on. But … why did Salomon wait fifteen years before diving into his wayfinding project so intensely and making his pitch to the TA? At first, I thought it was because the Transit Authority, which took over from the Board of Transportation in 1953, and which was supposed to run the subway in a businesslike way, wanted to stop buying in Hagstrom’s map and make its own, and accordingly opened its door to a freelance who could create the TA’s first in-house map. But Jerome Daly’s memo of 1952 shows that the Board was already looking at a new map to replace Hagstrom’s map before the Transit Authority had even been created.  So what triggered Salomon’s sudden activity in 1955?

Could it be coincidence that Salomon got going on his new designs in the year of retirement of Scheyer, the Authority’s go-to man for subway map design? We know that in 1954 Salomon designed the in-house magazine, Transit, so Salomon was certainly in touch with the design community within the TA. Three possibilities come to mind: First, Scheyer knew he was on his way out but wanted to start the process of creating a new map, so he made contact with Salomon.  Second, Salomon heard through his contacts at the TA, or read in the press, that Scheyer was retiring and therefore stepped up with his proposals. Third, Scheyer, who presumably favoured the Hagstrom map that he himself had drawn, had blocked any move away from the TA’s use of the Hagstrom subway product as its official map.  As soon as Scheyer left, the TA stopped using the Hagstrom map and hired a freelancer named George Salomon. Until more evidence comes to light, though, we have nothing but speculation on this point.

Emanuel Scheyer’s other work

Grant Ave
Design drawing by Emanuel Scheyer: Architectural Rendering of Grant Avenue Control Building (IND Fulton Line). Courtesy of New York Transit Museum.

By the way, Emanuel Scheyer has a lot more to his credit than the the Hagstrom subway map. Over his fifty-year career in transit design, he published a number of technical articles [e.g. 3] and letters to the press [e.g. 4]. He  was chosen to be a charter member of the University of California’s Tau Beta Pi (the Engineering honor society, equivalent to the Literary Phi Beta Kappa or Scientific Sigma Xi), and he wore the gold Tau Beta Pi key every day as a pendant from a chain, and used it to keep his necktie in place in lieu of a tie pin [8].

  • While designing the IND subway, he created ‘flying junctions’, which allow trains to switch tracks without hazardous and time-wasting at-grade crossings.
  • Against conservative resistance, he introduced arc welding to replace riveting for holding together and strengthening weight-bearing structural steel components.
  • Patented at least ten inventions [5].
  • Larry believes that his grandfather reduced or stopped his map-related activity in the 1950s in order to focus on the Rockaways subway.  In his designs for this extension of the IND, Emanuel stipulated that it be built on a causeway founded on thousands of wooden piles driven into the mud of Jamaica Bay to make it secure [9] (in contrast to the LIRR trestles that burnt down), which served well until Hurricane Sandy. It was because of this huge project sponsored by Robert Moses (Moses’ only subway construction, I believe) that Scheyer was allowed to continue working beyond the then mandatory retirement age of 70 [6].  (BTW, Larry writes of the LIRR fire of May 8, 1950: “Emanuel told me the fire happened because someone flicked a burning cigarette out an open train window, and it landed not in the water, but on the highly-flammable creosote-soaked pilings and ignited 1,800 linear feet of trestle.”)

Further research is required to follow up these leads on the history of the Hagstrom subway map, but it is good that I now have some specifics to work on. If anyone out there happens to have further information about Emanuel Scheyer then I would love to hear from you!


[1] New York Times, July 23, 1954, “Brooklyn Water Table Oozing Up”.

[2] New York Times, September 25, 1973, “Obituary: Emanuel Scheyer, Ex-Transit Aide, 88”

[3] Scientific American, December 1922, “When Perforated Paper Goes to Work. How Strips of Paper Can Endow Inanimate Machines with Brains of Their Own”

[4] New York Times, February 11, 1913, letter about elevator doors.

[5] Patent US 1172058 A, “Automatically Controlled Mechanism” (the Kinautograph), filed December 16, 1912, granted February 15, 1916. Patent US1172059 A, “Automatically controlled Mechanism”, filed March 13, 1913, granted February 15, 1916. Patent US1344611 A, “Embroidering Machine”, with Albert Bersin, filed March 6, 1916, granted June 29, 1920. Patent US2357851A, “Heat Reflective Material”, filed December 11, 1940, granted September 12, 1944. Patent US2357851A, “Heat Reflective Material”, filed December 11, 1940, granted September 12, 1944. Patent US2382583 A, “Structural section for flexible welded connections”, filed September 16, 1943, granted August 14, 1945. Patent USRE22905 E, “Flexible welded structural connection”, filed August 14, 1945, granted August 12, 1947. Patent US30605522, “Heat Reflective Filament”, filed July 9, 1953, granted October 30, 1962. US3002252 A, “Method of Producing Heat Reflective Fabric”, filed Jul 9, 1953, granted October 3, 1961. Patent US3038234, “Heat Reflective Fabric”, filed July 9, 1953. granted June 12, 1962.

[6] New York Times, September 1, 1955, “Head of City System Leaving Oct. 1 for Private Practice”, by Peter Kihss. [Mentions mandatory retirement age in passing.]


[8] Email from Lawrence Scheyer, December 8, 2015.

[9] Email from Lawrence Scheyer, December 7, 2015.


Parallel tracks … subway maps in alternate worlds

With everyone talking about the new television series based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, we have to wonder how the evolution of the subway map might have been different, had history run a different course.

The New York Transit Map … if the Nazis had won

Well, in Mr Dick’s dystopian ‘alternative history’ there would have been no Diagram Decades of the New York City subway map.  The diagram was introduced to New York by George Salomon, whose family fled Hamburg to escape the Nazis: George had been expelled from school, and his father Richard sacked from his position as Professor of History, for ‘racial reasons’.  No doubt in Philip Dick’s parallel world, the New York Schutzstaffel (SS) would have no trouble hunting down the Salomon family. As for Massimo Vignelli … well, he was a passionate follower of the Bauhaus. The Dessau Bauhaus was shut down by the provincial Nazis in 1932, and its re-establishment in Berlin was closed by the Gestapo the next year. The main reason was that they were considered to be communist.  So, we can assume there’d be no New Bauhaus in the Chicago of Dick’s Greater Nazi Reich.

Nazi subway
Combined Nazi/US flags on the 42nd Street Shuttle, a promotional gimmick by Amazon Studios. (Photo:

Meanwhile in the real world, the FBI tried to deport Vignelli in 1966 because he had once taken an interest in communism and visited the Soviet Union. This incident as a young man in Italy haunted his life in the USA and prevented him from becoming an American citizen until 2001 (see Conradi, 2014). How much worse would things be in Dick’s imagined Nazi America? The Unimark International firm that Vignelli co-founded would probably never have got off the ground.

So, no diagrammatic maps for the New York subway in Philip Dick’s Nazi America. Instead, we would have continued using the Hagstrom subway map, modified with Raleigh D’Adamo’s route-colouring from 1967, until 1979 when the Tauranac committee would convert the map to trunk colours.

Besides imagining the subway map in the alternate world of the Man in the High Castle, we can also consider less extreme alternate universes.

Or, if George Salomon had won …

What if, in the 1950s, the Transit Authority had paid more attention to George Salomon’s proposals? What if they had adopted his colour scheme for the lines? Or even his line nomenclature and his wholesale overhaul of the signage? Dr Max Roberts of Essex University has partly answered this by creating a version of the Salomon map that was published by the TA in 1958, in which he has re-worked it with the trunk-based colour scheme of Salomon’s 1956 proposal.
2015-11-28 Roberts - Salomon intended 1000pixWe see a map of greatly enhanced clarity, very much like Salomon had wanted it.  Probably with his revised nomenclature it would be clearer still.  Salomon wanted to get rid off the old line names – Lexington Avenue, Sea Beach Line, and so on, and to designate each trunk with a letter (e.g. the Broadway trunk line would be “E” and each branch would be given a numeric suffix: E1 is the branch terminating at Van Cortland Park, E2 = South Ferry, E3 = East 180th Street, E4 = Flatbush Avenue, E5 = 145 Street, E6 = New Lots Avenue).  Max Roberts has implemented only Salomon’s 1956 colour scheme, and kept line names as the TA had them in 1958.

Or, if Massimo Vignelli had won?

If 1972, the TA published Massimo Vignelli’s iconic map of the subway, but shortly afterwards, in early 1975, the TA started a Subway Map Committee to replace it. Vignelli maintained that this was an incredible waste.  If there were problems with his map, he said, then just hire him back to fix the problems, don’t jettison the whole map! What if William Ronan had stayed as chairman of the MTA, and David Yunich and Fred Wilkinson had not brought over their commercial ideas from Macy’s? What if, in this alternate world, Vignelli had won the argument, and John Tauranac’s trunk colour scheme had been incorporated into the Vignelli map?  Again, Max Roberts has assisted our imagination by constructing as a vector graphic file the 1972 Vignelli map with the 1979 Tauranac colours.

2015-11-29 Roberts - Vignelli 1979 1000pix

The result is similar to the revised map created in 2008 by Vignelli Associates (Vignelli himself, with Yoshiki Waterhouse and Beatriz Cifuentes) for Men’s Vogue magazine, which evolved into the Weekender in 2012. One big difference is that the 2008/2012 map has a new geometry, which lets go of Vignelli’s ziggurat form, and replaces it with a diagonal ‘gash’ across Manhattan, along the line of Broadway.

I was lucky to be able to show Max’s ‘alternate reality’ map to Massimo Vignelli a year before he passed away, and he grinned the mischievous Vignelli grin …

The books and the posters

I will be discussing what we can learn from these two ‘alternate history’ maps by Max Roberts in my forthcoming books, Modernism on the Tracks (1958-1969) and Make Straight the Way (1972-1978), which form Volumes 4 and 5 of my History of the New York City Subway Map.

cover all

Backers of my recent Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print the forthcoming books are still able to get posters of these two maps, but they will not be generally available as posers for copyright reasons.


Jan Conradi (2014), Lella and Massimo Vignelli: Two Lives, One Vision, RIT Press, Rochester, p 41.

The Diagram Decades

I have now launched my Kickstart campaign, The Diagram Decades of the New York City Subway Map.  This is to raise funds to publish the middle three volumes of my complete, nine-volume History of the New York City Subway Map.

The complete sequence is as follows:

TRILOGY I (not being funded yet)

  • Volume 1: Tracing the Lines (1875-1923) covers the early plans for the subway, the first public maps, and the wall maps of the first New York transit operator, the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT).
  • Volume 2: Mapping Three Subways (1924-1943) begins with the ‘Dual Contracts’ period.  In 1923, a rival company was invited to operate new subway lines, the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit (BMT), and it started producing pocket maps designed by a young Hungarian emigre, George Plachy. At about the same time, IRT brought out its own pocket maps from 1924. In 1932 they were joined by the Independent Transit Company (IND) which produced various designs.
  • Volume 3: Spanning the City (1943-1956) starts shortly after the unification of the three subway networks under the Board of Transportation in 1940.  At first there was no official map of the unified system, so the Board, and later its successor the Transit Authority, bought in copies of maps by Andrew Hagstrom and Stephen Voorhies.

TRILOGY II (being funded in this Kickstarter campaign)

  • Volume 4: Modernism on the Tracks (1958-1969) opens up the ‘Diagram Decades’, with George Salomon’s modernist diagram of the subway, the introduction of color-coding by routes using Raleigh D’Adamo’s concept, the development of full prototypes by Stanley Goldstein, and the fragmentation of the modernist dream by J.H. Adler in the 1967 map.
  • Volume 5: Make Straight the Way (1972-1978) examines the most famous subway map, the minimalist design of Massimo Vignelli. Albeit anachronistically, this book also covers the revival of the Vignelli map after 2008.
  • Volume 6: Geography Bites Back (1979) examines the work of the Subway Map Committee chaired by Fred Wilkinson and latterly John Tauranac, which sank the Vignelli map and launched a new geographic map.
TRILOGY III (not being funded yet)
  • Volume 7: Charting New Challenges (1980 to now) surveys the gradual evolution of the geographic subway map under the stewardship of Michael Hertz Associates and latterly Chuck Gordanier. This volume also includes the emergency maps created for 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.
  • Volume 8: Parallel Lines (1904 to now) examines the non-official maps produced outside of the operating companies, from the large number of independent maps produced before unification of the subways in 1940, to experimental designs such as Maxwell Roberts’ circular maps of the New York subway. (Versions of the Hagstrom and Union Dime maps that were adopted as official maps were already covered in volume 3.)
  • Volume 9: Maps of Light documents the sudden growth of electronic maps, especially on mobile electronic devices.

Book Review: Metro Maps of the World

Mark Ovenden sits firmly within the tradition of the obsessive gentleman-scholar.  Like Joseph Dalton Hooker, the driven botanist who collected samples of plants from every nook and cranny on the planet, and hence built up the amazing collection of Kew Gardens. Or Hooker’s more famous chum, Charles Darwin, who meticulously built up a vast array of observations and specimens to support his innovative theory of evolution. Marks has compiled a madly comprehensive album of the world’s subterranean cartographic flora and fauna.

After every book, it seems, Mark tells me that he is never going to write another one.  Not just the endless hours and limitless energy that  are expended in getting the maps, and getting the permissions to use them, and the brain-crunching slog of checking the details of hundreds of transit systems. But also jumping through the hoops of the publisher’s changing requirements. And yet he keeps writing them! This is the third incarnation of this behemoth of a book. Plus the other books, which I will mention below. He is a map addict: a compulsive collector and cataloguer of transit maps, in the lineage of the great 19th Century information harvesters like J.D. Hooker, Charles Darwin, Charles Fort, and E.C. Brewer.

Three incarnations of Transit Maps of the World (photo: Reka Komoli)

The result is a comprehensive labyrinth of data that has become a unique and indispensable reference work. And lest you fear a dry and dusty lifeless archive, Mark brings to bear his years of experience as a radio presenter: the text is bright and bouncy. There is a never a flat paragraph, never a quipless page.

It’s true that Mark is not a theoretician or a systematiser: the maze of maps is presented as-is. He has not done any deep digging behind the scenes to get at the whys and wherefores of the maps. What you see is what you get. Maps. Lots of them.

The project was first unveiled to the public in 2003, when Mark’s compilation was published by James Whiting under the title Metro Maps of the World.  Whiting runs a dedicated publishing firm called Capital Transport Publishing , which mostly supplies picture books of buses and rail rolling stock. But Whiting hit paydirt in 1994 with Ken Garland’s groundbreaking book Mr Beck’s Underground Map, which revealed the fascination of transit maps to a general public who had previously taken the Underground map for granted. Garland’s book continues to be a bestseller and (despite minority criticism from Max Roberts) is widely respected. So, when Mark assembled his first compilation of maps, Capital Transport was a natural home for it, and Metro Maps of the World was published in 2003, with a revised and expanded edition in 2005.

For penetrating the US market, and Mark’s book was published by Penguin and reincarnated as Transit Maps of the World in 2007. This was a phenomenal success, and led Mark to produce two other books. First, Paris Metro Style in map and station design (with myself and Julian Pepinster as co-editors) in 2008, initially with Jim Whiting’s company, which the next year transferred to Penguin US as Paris Underground: The Maps, Stations, and Design of the Metro. Second, he compiled Railway Maps of the World, published by Penguin US in 2011 (and in London as Great Railway Maps of the World, by Particular Books, a UK imprint of Penguin).  And in 2013, he published London Underground by Design, again with Particular Books.  In and amongst this prolific flow of books, Mark and I started working on a Penguin book on the New York subway map, but unfortunately for that project I kept expanding the research material until it left the orbit of Penguin’s popular book category and landed in the academic publisher RIT Press, where it emerged in 2012 as Vignelli: Transit Maps (with Mark on the cover as collaborator) and has now mushroomed into my planned nine volumes on New York (the first three, The Diagram Decades, at the mercy of Kickstarter funding at this moment).

I mention all this to show that Transit Maps of the World is just one facet of his continuing programme of collecting, writing, and publishing.

One criticism that has been made of Transit Maps of the World is that, while the fieldwork is beyond compare, and Mark has earned the title of ‘Mapfinder General’, he has neglected the homework – the careful research and fact checking.  So, as New York is one city whose map I know something about, I decided for this review to take a close look at the New York section of the book.

In the 2003 edition, I counted about seven errors, mostly of chronology but including one mapmaker’s name misspelt, and one map misdescribed. In the 2007 edition I count only two: the same map misdescribed, and one typo. In the 2015 edition, I see only one minor error of chronology: Unimark was contracted to redesign the map in 1970, not 1968, although hardly anyone knows this. And two typos. To be fair, the blame for the typos can be laid on Penguin. Given  that this gigantic publishing firm makes shedloads of money out of the books (vastly more than the author), why can’t they hire a competent proofreader? (Cameron Booth’s review makes the same point.)

Therefore, my conclusion is that, after the 2007 edition, Mark has sharpened up his fact checking and Transit Maps of the World is now as good as any fact-packed encyclopaedic work can hope to be.

The 2015 edition has been completely reworked: all map images are new to the this edition and as far as I can see most of the text has been written afresh and expanded. The 2003 edition had 136 pages, the 2007 edition had 144, and this one has 176 pages.

2003-2007 p1
New York section of the 2003 & 2007 editions: first two pages
2003-2007 p2
New York section of the 2003 & 2007 editions: last two pages

The New York section has expanded from four pages to six, and the selection of maps is much better. In 2003 and 2007, the first map is the unexciting 1905 transit map issued by the New York Central  & Hudson River Railroad to assist its passengers upon their arrival at Grand Central Terminal, which Mark said was “probably used inside cars” which is impossible as it is clearly not an IRT map. In the 2015 edition, that map has gone, and in its place are two fantastic early maps. First, William Barclay Parsons’ engineering map, which was reprinted in guidebooks and newspaper and magazine articles at the time of the opening of the subway in 1904.  Second, is the awesome three-colour map that was printed in the IRT’s large-format commemorative book, which was not sold to the public but only distributed to VIPs and journalists at the opening of the subway. Since the 1970s, many people will have seen the dull black-and-white version of this in the reprint of the IRT book, but you have to get the rare original book to see it in its full glory. It’s good to have a colour print of it here.

2015 edition: New York section, first two pages

The 2003 edition had a solitary black-and-white image of a 1940s BMT Division map, which was odd choice. The 2007 edition was much better in having colour IRT, BMT, and IND maps, although only as  thumbnails.  Now, in the 2015 edition, Mark has IRT and BMT maps printed large enough to appreciate them. Sadly, the IND map as been dropped, presumably victim to his rule that all maps must be new in this edition.  Hey Mark, please would you bend your rule and put the IND map back in? It’s the only coloured IND map known to exist!

2015 edition: New York section, middle two pages

From 1943 to 1956, the Board of Transportation and later Transit Authority issued Hagstrom maps overprinted with their own text and information.  In the 2003 and 2007 editions, Mark printed one of those maps. Now, in the new edition, he has chosen instead a map from Hagstrom’s rival George Nostrand. This map is very similar to Hagstrom’s although everybody agrees that Hagstrom is better. Why don’t you get both editions of Mark’s book and compare the Hagstrom and Nostrand maps yourself? (Interestingly Tim Bryars recently suggested, in his book A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps,  that Nostrand got his design from Hagstrom by hook or by crook. I suspect that Nostrand actually got  his design from another Swede, August Ohman. Time will tell.)

The big change in the New York map came in 1958, with George Salomon’s diagram. In 2003 and 2007, Mark had three thumbnail images for 1958, 1966, and 1969. Thankfully in 2015 we see the Salomon map in a larger image, spanning the page.  But this is not a scanned image, it is a vector graphics reconstruction by Max Roberts. I have serious misgivings about this practice. Both Roberts and Cameron Booth have been creating reconstructions of transit maps. The results are beautiful works of art that are great to hang on the wall. But they are not the real thing! They are not authentic! A certain amount of damage repair is acceptable (as Reka Komoli did on Mark’s images of the 1904 maps) but printing totally recreated maps in a book of historically real maps seems to me an ill-advised practice. Obviously opinions differ on this, but I would urge Mark to avoid reconstructed maps in future editions. (To be fair, though, this is partly my fault, as I didn’t send him a scan of the Salomon map in time. My bad.)


The third and final two-page spread for New York shows the 1978 Vignelli map alongside the 2012 Weekender designed by Vignelli Associates (Vignelli himself with Yoshiki Waterhouse and Beatriz Cifuentes). It is good to see them side-by-side, but maybe it would have been better to drop the old Vignelli map (which was very similar to the 1972 map in the old editions of the book) and print the Weekender map in full-page size. And on the opposite page a descendent of the map designed by John Tauranac’s committee (a better one than Mark used in the earlier editions).

Overall, the six-page New York section gives a good overview of the current and historical subway maps of this city. I would suggested dropping the thumbnail images, which are too small to read (except for small details such as PATH) and definitely avoid reconstructed maps.

I have focused on just six pages out of a 176-page book, only because of my own interest.  As for the rest of the book, I can only peruse with wonderment.  It’s like wandering around a 19th Century museum of natural history, with the exotic and weird jostling cheek-to-cheek in a crowded space with the familiar and well known.  The new table of contents (by Reka Komoli) is matchingly labyrinthine. In the 2003 and 2007 editions, the contents page looked like something from a science laboratory, which was incongruous with the eccentric 19th-Century style of the book.

2003-2015 contents
Table of Contents: 2003 edition (left) and 2015 edition (right)

The maps present themselves with little or background explanation or history.  They just are.  What are we to take from this array? Mainly the sheer heterogeneity of the maps. They are all so different!  Only by seeing them all together like this can the reader see in a glance the irreducible global chaos of transit mapping.

Buy it. Gaze at it. And be amazed.

A Halloween reading of this weird and wonderful book (photo: Reka Komoli)

History is what happens when you are looking at the past

Whilst preparing for the symposium at the Great Hall of Cooper Union on October 27 (The Subway Map: The Last 50 Years, The Next 50 Years), it hit me that history is not just the events that happened in the dusty, sepia-coloured past, but it is also what is happening today and tomorrow, in the white heat of technological innovation.

For the past twenty years I have been collecting old subway maps on eBay, sifting through museum archives, and tracking down retired mapmakers who made their mark in the 1960s and 1970s, and I was barely aware of the seismic transformation happening to the subway map now through digital technology.

Earlier this year, when I circulated Reka Komoli’s reconstruction of Raleigh D’Adamo’s 1964 map on the internet, my own feeling was like, “Whoa, this is ‘Jurassic Maps’! We are gazing 50 years into the past” but most of the feedback was like, “So what ideas does this map have for designing maps today?” And I started reading up about the growing array of apps for mobile devices that have come onto the market since the MTA’s Open Data program of 2008, and the interactive digital kiosks that have started populating subway stations since 2011.

In fifty years time, historians will look back at this time and see historic changes whose ramifications will ripple down through the ages to the subway riders of the future.

Subway map history project

I started collecting subway maps about twenty years ago but this research project as such began in 2004 when George Salomon’s son, Frank, contacted me and prompted me to start researching in archives and interviewing people.  Mostly this was a slow process as I could get to the USA for only a few weeks’ vacation each year. My focus was almost entirely in the past, especially the ‘diagram decades’ 1958-1979. I was aware that there were new phone apps for the subway but did not really focus on them.

Undocumented history is oblivion

One of the problems I frequently encountered in researching the history of the subway map is the ubiquitous gap in the paper trail.  I repeatedly find that crucial documents have long since been discarded. Either they were were never saved beyond the time of their original use, or they were archived for a while, and then ditched when the company closed, or was taken over, or downsized, or simply decided to have a clean sweep and clear away paperwork that no longer had any operational or legal role to play. I would say that most of the inside story of how the subway map evolved since the subway opened its doors on October 27, 1904, has been irrecoverably lost. Historians are scrabbling to piece together the historical narrative as best we can.

Map history is happening now!

And the same process is going on today.  In all areas of life, not just the design of the subway map, people are urgently getting on with their work in the here and now, usually against deadlines and client pressure, and there is no time and no space and no human resources to document and archive this frenetic activity for future historians. And so the creeping blanket of cultural amnesia sweeps over our civilisation.  And nobody cares too much, until fifty years down the line, people wonder how we got where we are.

The period 1958 to 1979 is one of great change and innovation in the subway map. We are now in the midst of another period of upheaval, triggered by the wide availability of electronic maps on mobile devices.  And where is this being documented for future historical reference?  The innovative Kickmap is a already a decade old. It is already historical!

So, I decided I should really start taking notes on these big changes, for inclusion n the final book of my planned nine-volume history of the subway map. Yes, I should have started doing this years ago, in 2004 in fact. My bad.

Anyway, this is why I decided that the map event that I organised (on October 27,  2015 – the 111th birthday of the subway) should span the past and the future, and gave it the title The Subway Map: The Last 50 Years, The Next 50 Years.

My next two blog posts will take a closer look at two strand of electronic subway maps, the interactive digital  kiosks in stations, and smartphone apps.

George Salomon: Remaking New York’s Subway Map

I recently interviewed Frank and George Salomon – sons of George Salomon, the designer of the 1958 New York City Subway Map, which the first to follow a diagrammatic style in the modernist school of design. The facts and dates of the map can be found in the archives: what I was trying to get by going to Iowa City and chatting with these guys was insight into what drove George Salomon, how he worked, and how he saw his work.

Working on the map

After the control of the subway passed from the Board of Transportation to the Transit Authority in 1953, George saw an opportunity to pursue his ideal of reforming the subway wayfinding apparatus. In 1954 he designed the banner for the TA’s staff magazine, perhaps as a way of getting a foot in the door.

Transit banner 1954

In 1955 he prepared some prospectuses, including a first sketch of the subway map.

Salomonfrontcover small

The sketch map used his proposed new nomenclature, which was not adopted:

Salomon map excerpt

The next year, the TA awarded him the contract, and in December 1958, his revolutionary new map came out.

map cover 1958

George had a day-job with Parsons, and worked on the subway map as a freelance job in the evenings and weekends. What was this like?  Richard: “I remember my father in his study room, the T-square on the drawing board, late into the night, every night for – how long was it?” Frank: “From ’55 he was into it hard-core. And it wasn’t even his study, it was so improvised. We lived in a very little house. In ’55, ’56 that was still Yonkers. Our mum was a seamstress, a dressmaker. She had a little area with her sewing machine and work table, and that space had to double as a studio: Tilly with her sewing by day and George with his tri-square at night.  And also weekends with the excursions out.  He’d say, ‘Today, I’m going study Broadway Junction’. These especially complex stations, he just went over them with a fine tooth-comb. One or two times he took one or both of us along to take a look at it. It was fascinating but also boring because he was checking every stairway and every viewpoint that a passenger would experience, thinking ‘How could you represent that in a way that won’t confuse them.”

This is precisely the same exercise that Bob Noorda would carry out ten years later. The main difference was that George Salomon did this work on his proposed new wayfinding signage without pay, and the TA never adopted it; whereas Bob Noorda was well paid by Unimark and the designs that he and Massimo Vignelli worked out were adopted through the subway system and are still in use today. The fate of George’s detailed notes from these extensive studies is not known.

Reaction to the map

I asked Frank whether, as a 12-year-old child, he was proud that his fellow school pupils knew that his dad designed the subway map that was in every subway car in the city.  Frank said: “It wasn’t propitious because those kids out in suburbia were mostly ex-New Yorkers and their folks felt like, ‘Now we’re leaving the subway behind. And now it’s gonna be a better life.’ So, if you said your dad did something for the subway, they’d say, ‘Well, my dad’s a cop’, and that’d be the end of the discussion.” Richard: “There was nothing wrong with riding the subway. But it was mostly dad’s did it. And the kids lived out in the suburbs.” Frank: “They were looking forward to a life without subways. The big event in our year was the change of model year with the cars. The three-tone new tail fins; the three-coloured 1957 Dodge – that was the model of the moment. And the image of the subway was that of drudge and the exhaustion of the old life and crowded urban neighbourhoods and tough jobs.”

After 1958, George had no further work from the TA, not even updates of the map. Frank: “It was a great disappointment.  His proposal was intended as a package for the transit system as a whole. And he was even beginning in his mind to go further and think, ‘What would I do with an airport? What would I do with a Greyhound terminal?’ He had the notion that in this proposal he was announcing himself as a new intellectual creature in the world, an orientation specialist.”

George hated the version of the map that the TA made for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Frank: “They put that bid blue splodge on it without any regard for the design. And then the cover which he thought was just a trashy advertising look, and he felt a little betrayed by that, but he felt at that point that the TA he wasn’t going to get anywhere.”

map cover 1964

The Subway Map Committee, 1978

From 1975 to 1979 the MTA Subway Map Committee led by John Tauranac laboured to create a new geographic map to replace Massimo Vignelli’s map.  There was a show at the Cityana Gallery where the prototype map was displayed.  George submitted a six-page critique of the new map.  Frank:  “There was some comment about errors in Tauranac’s map. But he took it very cool. This was not a question of feeling betrayed anymore, life had moved on. But he did feel, ‘Aw, where are the people who do things right?’ And it bothered him that although Tauranac was such an expert and superb in a different way, nevertheless there were some maladjustments in the map that could mislead a passenger and he did write a letter about that.”

As far as we know, after 1958, George never drew another map.

George Salomon: Modernism and Mondrian

In my interview with Frank and Richard Salomon, I tried to discover some of the background character and influences that led their father, George Salomon, to his creation of the first diagrammatic map of the New York subway, and to his heroic attempt to initiate a wide-ranging reform of the subway’s wayfinding signage. In my previous post, I shared some of my notes on the character of George Salomon. Here, I want to mention some his influences.

England’s influence on George Salomon

Between leaving Germany to escape the Nazi regime, and arriving in New York to start a new life, the young George Salomon spent a year studying under Eric Gill at Pigotts Farm in England, which gave him a chance to explore London and especially the London Underground.

I asked Frank about how London had influenced his father: “He liked very much the use of the London Underground emblem [the ‘roundel’] which was like the infallible signpost. He thought it was good-looking in its own right and it was beautifully deployed in the city. If there was a station, you could see a clue to it from anywhere. You didn’t feel lost!”

On George’s tutor: “As a person, [Eric] Gill was a terrible guy. He attracted women and then treated them bad; he had quite a bit of charisma but he had very little ethics about how to treat people, and if you got on his wrong side, he’d just throw you away. But nonetheless he had no regrets about it; he thought that was a great moment, and looking back on the genesis of that map, that probably influenced him quite a lot more than the U-Bahn did. Modernity with a somewhat softened edge.  I remember him thinking so long and hard about colours for that map. Broadway Boogie-Woogie was great but those kind of colours give an artefact a somewhat nervous look and harsh on the eye. He wanted to avoid that. He was very, very interested in typography. “

Bauhaus and modernism

I also asked Frank about Bauhaus and the modernist movement: “Bauhaus was an important theme. His vital connection to it was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was always limelighting Bauhaus and European Modernism, and he had a subscription to the publications of the Museum of Modern Art. I remember quite a lot of discussions about modernism and painting. ‘Less in more’ I remember that was a slogan very early on that he found compelling. I do remember the first time he showed us Broadway Boogie Woogie [by Piet Mondrian] which was in the Museum of Modern Art at this time. And he liked it because of the rationalism, the strict limited language and clarity of structure but at the same time a sense of excitement and motion. He said this one really makes me feel like New York.”

The influence of Mondrian on early designers of subway maps is often hinted but difficult to establish. Certainly Harry Beck was too early with his London Underground map to have been influenced by Mondrian. But Salomon and Mondrian actually moved to New York in the same year (1940), and Mondrian’s paintings would certainly have been visible to Salomon. After Mondrian’s death in 1948, his estate was acquired by Sidney Janis Gallery (15 East 57th Street), which held Mondrian shows in 1949 and 1951.  Among the works acquired by Janis was Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, later acquired by MoMA (1967).  See below. This is very typical of the middle period of Mondrian’s  work.  Given Salomon’s interested in modern art (as attested by his subscription to MoMA publications) and that the Sidney Janis Gallery was the leading private gallery for avant-garde art in New York at the time, it would be a bit surprising if Salomon had not seen the Mondrian exhibitions there.

Mondrian Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow small
Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1937, amended 1942). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Reka Komoli.

During the last eight years of Mondrian’s life, spent in New York, he developed a new style, which omitted his signature black grid and comprised only a myriad of small coloured rectangles. One particular painting from this period that made a big impression on Salomon was Broadway Boogie-Woogie, which MoMA acquired in 1943. See below. This, for Mondrian, represented the inexhaustible energy and ordered chaos of New York. Which seems to have been similar to Salomon’s own view of the city.

Mondrian Broadway Boogie-Woogie small
Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Reka Komoli.


Income in the Salomon household was tight in the 1950s, and George’s wife Mathilde supplemented his wages by working as a seamstress at home.  Nevertheless, there was always a supply of books on modern design and art in the Salomon home.

Frank: “There was one monograph that really made a mark. That was Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command. He said he was impressed with it as an overall vision of how the machine age could be made into a good thing. And he felt that he was a participant in that venture. I read it with some edge of trepidation because it goes quite a way into the kind of territory what people later called brutalism … very close to the stricter type of Bauhaus.  I thought, ‘Does everything have to be black and white, and right angles, and symmetrical units?’ But he appreciated that.” Richard mentioned the books of the satirical cartoonist Robert Osborn: “He was very impressed with a book by social commentator named Osborn. It was a scathing, angry critique of 1950s consumerism and particularly automobile design, and the horrible excess; and it was really forceful and bitter. I think it really expressed my father’s aesthetic viewpoint although he was more gentle in his expression of it.”

Banner picture: Dessau Bauhaus, photo: Nate Robert


Sigfrid Giedion (1948), Mechanisation Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History,  Oxford University Press, 608 pp.

See also:

George Salomon: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

History is not just a collation of actions and dates. That is the skeleton – which is obviously essential – but it needs to be fleshed out with insights into the character of the actors, their motives, their hopes, their achievements and disappointments.  I recently interviewed Frank and Richard Salomon about their father, George, for Volume 4 of my History of the New York Subway Map.  I came back from Iowa City with a better understanding of George’s thinking.

George Salomon is one of the most important figures in the history of the New York City subway map.  Single-handedly he instigated the ‘diagram decades’, the twenty-year era in which the subway map was a diagram, not a geographic map.  That was his achievement. His disappointment was that he wanted to remake the entire way-finding apparatus of the New York subway – the map, the signage, the nomenclature – to make it into a modernist system. But the TA wasn’t ready for it. They needed another decade.

In this and the following post, I will record some of my notes from the video interview. In this post, I will focus on Salomon’s character, on what made him tick.

Trains and automobiles

George was highly focused on transit systems. Years after the 1958 subway map was finished, he and Mathilde had enough money to travel abroad.  Frank recalled: “Tilly’d say, ‘We went to Milan’. I’d say, ‘Really? What was it like in Milan?’ ‘When we got to Milan, all he’d want to do is ride on the subway train’.”  Even though his faith in the New York Transit Authority ended with bitterness, his faith in public transport per se never faltered.

“He hated cars, by the way,” says Richard, the younger son. “I think that’s important because [it represents] both of our parents’ incomplete Americanisation. Both of our parents hated automobiles, but they very reluctantly got an automobile because they had to when we moved to the suburbs, to Yonkers, in 1949. They bought the cheapest, crappiest car that they could find. They didn’t have much money, but even so: a normal American family would buy a nicer car that they couldn’t afford. They bought this wretched thing called the Henry J which was the prototype of the compact economy car but it was just a real piece of crap. After that, we bought a Plymouth that he mutilated in an un-American way. So that was why we never took what I considered a proper American vacation – where you have a big Ford station-wagon and drive to the Grand Canyon.  He believed in public transport. He grew up in Germany with public transport that, then and now, is incomparably superior to anything in this country.   In that way he never Americanised: he never became an ‘automobile guy’.  When we did buy our second car, it was a 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook. At that time it had ‘finlets’, the emerging embryos of the fins, just little metal strips on the back fenders. He hated them: he unscrewed them and removed them from the car. I’m sure he was the only dad in America who did anything like that.  He Bauhaused that Plymouth!  My mother used to say, ‘Just tell them “My father is eccentric”.’ ”

 photo DSC_0128.jpg
A 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook with chrome finlets. (Photo: dart165)

Patriotism and McCarthyism

Roger Remington has mapped out the gradual rise of modernism in the USA in his compendious book, Modernism in America.  From this it is clear that Salomon came too early.  Like Massimo Vignelli twenty years later, Salomon came infused with a burning desire to fix everything that was wrong with information delivery in the transit system, and to do so within the discipline of modernism — or the ‘International Style’ as it was then known.  But while Vignelli came when modernism was dawning in American commerce and public institutions, Salomon came in the darkness before that dawn. Modernism was still an esoteric subject that was embraced by a handful of isolated academics and graphic designers. Salomon, too, was isolated.  Remington notes that “in the 1940s the scarcity of great American graphic designers was conspicuous. Herb Lubalin recalled, ‘They could be counted  on one hand in the 1940s and on both hands in the 1950s’.”

Frank recalls: “In that environment, in Yonkers in the 1950s, we were in an atmosphere where his Europeanism, his attachment to Bauhaus and so on was absolutely incomprehensible and was interpreted as communism. He truly was a deeply patriotic American and he wanted to be a part of it.  For example, he took us on a Fourth of July picnic, [but] that was the first time he heard an electric guitar, and he went into a towering rage; he walked home and he really felt that he had walked into something demonic, a lover of classical music as he was. You walk out in a huff from a Fourth of July picnic, and that was not good for your relations with the neighbourhood.”

The general suspicion of communism was enough for the FBI to send operatives to ask neighbours whether George had political meetings in his house. (McCarthyism was still going strong in the mid to late 1950s.) Frank continues: “Other kids at school would say, ‘How come your dad’s a communist?’ Etcetera. ‘Are you German?’ Yes. ‘So are you a Nazi?’” Richard: “He was actually very anti-communist. But in those days, if you were left of Eisenhower, or any way noticeably different, you were a ‘communist’! … When we moved to Great Neck, there was a group there who really were communist. He said ‘Those people are full of shit. They haven’t lived under totalitarianism, and I have. Communism and Nazism are not that different.’ He believed they were deluded fools.”

Senator Jose[h McCarthy, circa 1954
The Citizen Visionary

George Salomon worked alone to implement his vision of transit wayfinding and to offer it to the authorities as a solution to their self-evident problems. Frank:  “His ideal self-image was as a ‘citizen visionary’. There was big element of idealism and idealisation about the notion that someone who was an immigrant and a man in the street, if he knew what he was doing, could really improve the city and make life more innovative and more comfortable – not by asking political powers to make changes, but just by providing something better.”

Richard expands on George’s perception of New York: “He was basically a German person in his mind. He loved New York but … the chaos of it! He love the chaos in a certain sense but he wanted to tame it, but I don’t think New York really wanted to be tamed. New York is really part of the Third World. And I think he never could comprehend what the Third World is.  Which is to say, a place where nothing works, and nothing is expected to work, and people just deal with it and go around the system and defeat the system, and he could never think that way. So there was a certain small amount of tragedy in his career; he did his damnedest, and he did a very good thing, but he seemed to have the idea that he could make New York into a place that makes sense, and that cannot be done.”  Frank: “Edmund White wrote that ‘New York in 1970 was a junkyard with high aesthetic aspirations.’ It’s true, we grew up in New Yok as it was sliding into more chaos and that really would irritate the German in him. The German word ‘Schlamperei’ means sloppy acceptance of bad job and a mess and he did use that word for the way things were.  … But I think he understood that the Schlamperei and the Third World tendency were the flip side of something he did love, which was the inexhaustibility of the city. And he understood that you couldn’t have the never-ending inexhaustible kaleidoscope and fusion energy of New York without having some mess.”


When I interviewed Massimo Vignelli, he complained that Americans were too focused on individualism and never felt comfortable with systems because they seemed foreign and authoritarian. I asked Frank and Richard whether that was George Salomon’s view too.

Richard: “I think he would have appreciated the individualism, especially compared to his experiences [in Nazi Germany]”. Frank: “Systems – that was the hard edge of Sigfried Giedion’s tradition. He didn’t take that into his own life but he did share with that critique an everlasting dissatisfaction about the fact that Americans don’t recognise public interests.  The tendency in the USA is always to privatise pleasure and success and socialise failure and mess.” Richard: “He had the expression ‘Private luxury and public squalor.’ That’s what he thought of America. And it bothered him.” Frank: “Part of his high estimate of the citizen is that citizenship should be a fairly demanding idea, including paying taxes. Had he lived into the eighties he would have probably liked the idea of the ‘commons’ which caught on. He saw public transport as part of the commons, but a large part of Americans saw it as just a kind of safety net for losers who don’t have cars.”

“Mechanization Takes Command” by Sigfried Giedion (1948), an influential book for George Salomon


R. Roger Remington, with Lisa Bodenstedt (2003), American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960, Yale University Press, 192 pp.

Sigfrid Giedion (1948), Mechanisation Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History,  Oxford University Press, 608 pp.

See also: Visiting the Salomons

Kicking off Kickstarter with Eddie Jabbour

Having returned to Europe from the U.S. research trip – and back to a temperate North European climate after spending a sweltering summer in Bushwick, Brooklyn – we begin work on preparing for the Kickstarter campaign. First, we have to put together a short video for the Kickstarter profile page. This will comprise short segments from the thirteen video interviews that we recorded on the trip, interlaced with some explanatory segments by myself.

I’m starting with Eddie Jabbour’s interview, as he is an acute independent observer of the changing subway map scene in New York … since his first glimpse of the Salomon map as a young kid, maturing as a New Yorker with the Vignelli map, attending the Great Subway Map Debate between Vignelli and Tauranac in 1978 (and getting a signed copy of the 1978 map), and eventually – in 2004 -creating his own online map that incorporates diagrammatic and topographic elements.

still Jabbour interview
Eddie Jabbour in front of the Kick Maps (night and day subway maps), making a point with his iPhone during the interview. (Videography: Reka Komoli)

Eddie’s key point was that the watershed between 20th Century subway maps and 21st Century maps is the introduction of multiple layers in electronic maps.  All the 20th Century designs – from Salomon, D’Adamo, Vignelli, Tauranac, Waterhouse – are limited to a single layer of information, printed on a sheet of paper or displayed on a screen. But the multi-dimensionality of New York’s subway operations requires multiple layers of information in order to be delivered clearly to riders.  This is something that is now possible with smart mobile devices. Such as the iPhone.

Of course, Eddie’s own Kickmap for the iPhone is an example of just such a multi-layer user interface to the subway system. From the perspective of the Kickmap, the ‘map wars’ of the past century of subway map design are all about ‘squaring the circle’ – trying to achieve the impossible goal of getting all the subway service information into a single-layer map that is nonetheless legible and elegant.  Eddie Jabbour’s perspective is a useful point of reference for narrating the history of the subway map designs of the 20th Century – each of which have their individual merits, and none of which are perfect.

See also:

Visiting the Salomons

In December 1958, a new map of the New York City Subway appeared in the token booths and on the walls of the subway stations.  It was like nothing seen before in the city.  The new map swept away the detailed coastline, street plans, and the cemeteries and stadia of what used to be the two official maps of the Transit Author (designed by Andrew Hagstrom and Stephen Voorhies). It introduced a clean design in which subway lines were tidied up into vertical and horizontal lines and forty-five degree diagonals, connected with graceful, broad curves.  It was a crystal-clear demonstration of modernist design. It was George Salomon’s map.

The seventeen-year-old George Salomon had come to New York with his family in 1937 to escape the rising tide of Nazi oppression. But he came via England, spending a year studying under Eric Gill and exploring London’s Underground. Upon seeing the wayfinding chaos of New York City’s subway, he determined to clean up the city. Twenty years later, he saw part of his dream come true: not the wide-ranging reform of signage and nomenclature that he had proposed to the Transit Authority, but at least a new map.

George Salomon instituted the ‘Diagram Decades’ – twenty years of diagrammatic maps of the New York subway , from 1958 to 1979, and in 1978 gave a detailed critique of the prototype for the new geographic era that was ushered in by John Tauranac.

Sadly George Salomon died in 1981, but his elder son, Frank, got in touch with me in 2004, enabling me to interview George’s widow, Mathilde (now sadly deceased), and to study George’s notebooks in the New York Transit Museum.  This week, at last, I had the opportunity to travel to Iowa City to meet Frank and his brother Richard, and to interview them about their recollections of George Salomon and his creation of New York’s first modernist subway map.

Salomons and map
George & Richard Salomon, with a recently uncovered proof copy of the 1958 wall map by George Salomon.  (Photo: Reka Komoli)

Besides being a pleasure to hang out for a few days with the Salomon brothers and their partners, Mercedes and Robin, it was an honour to be in the presence of the spirit of such a great designer of subway maps. The interview also provided a lot of insight into George’s thinking and his influences.

Salomons and map and PBL
Frank Salomon, Peter B Lloyd, and Richard Salomon (left to right); with a newly uncovered proof copy of the pocket map by George Salomon. (Photo: Reka Komoli)

Among the excitements was the opening of a sealed cardboard tube, which Frank did not know the contents of. It turned out to have proof copies of the 1958 subway map designed by George Salomon – including cut pocket maps, uncut rolls of the pocket map, subway car maps, and station wall maps, all rolled up together. These are probably the only pristine proof copies in existence and are definitely a cartographic treasure trove for the  Salomon family!

The first use of the hour’s video recording of the interview will be to incorporate a few segments in the video introduction to a Kickstarter campaign that will raise funds to self-publish my next three books on the history of the New York City Subway map.

See also: