“North Stars Flieth Here:” On Maps and Humour in Environmental History

Scroll this

In June 1953, Trans Canada Air Lines’s Advertising Department debuted a new in-flight information packet. Available to every passenger on every TCA aircraft, this packet was likely seen by over one million passengers on flights to North American, European, and Caribbean destinations. According to Advertising Manager J. A. McGee, the new folder design had a “continental story-book atmosphere,” the highlight of which was a full-colour pictorial map of the Atlantic world. It was designed to mimic an early modern seafaring “mappe” featuring historic routes of exploration and charting TCA’s air routes on its newest aircraft, the Canadair DC-4M “North Star.” Maps and mapping have long informed environmental history, and techniques and technologies such as GIS have added tools to the environmental historian’s toolkit. This map, though, was far from accurate and wasn’t meant to be. So what can a map that wasn’t supposed to say anything about the environment say about the environment?

1953 pictorial map of the "knowen world," part of TCA's seat-back package.
1953 pictorial map of the “knowen world,” part of TCA’s seat-back package.

The portfolio was not the first time TCA’s patrons had seen this map. It first appeared in late 1952 as the airline’s corporate Christmas card. Sent to government officials, corporate contacts, and TCA’s direct-mail clients, this map already had fairly wide distribution. Furthermore, although data is unavailable for 1952, the card was usually approved and sent to the printer by October, so this map had likely been circulating among advertising officials for nearly a year before it was printed on the in-flight folder. This previous exposure and long gestation period were why McGee claims the Advertising Department chose this image; the department found the map “attractive,” and was pleased that it had been “met with such favourable comment” the previous year. The Christmas card and portfolio maps are virtually identical. There are minor differences in the descriptive text, but the overall impression—an early modern “mappe” designed to show TCA’s dominance over the “knowen world”—remained the same. And it was meant to be funny. If a passenger (or potential passenger, since these folders were also sent by direct mail) wanted accurate information about when, what, and where TCA flew, they could read the brochures, route maps, and customer information cards housed inside the folder. Instead, this map took the when, what, and where rather less seriously, but still showed the North Star’s apparent superiority over older forms of transportation and the differences between TCA’s various destination regions.

The rhetorical juxtaposition of old and new, especially in terms of trans-Atlantic transportation, was often used in TCA promotional material, and it depicts the airline and its aircraft as the next step along a continuum of transportation technologies. Using a stylized early-modern “mappe,” with all the expected features such as a maple-leaf-shaped compass rose, scrollwork cartouche, and even some “here be dragons”-style warnings is an eye-catching way to evoke this continuum. These deliberate concessions to history are juxtaposed with some definite twentieth-century features, such as the Panama Canal as a “short cut for ships” and Broadway star Mary Martin’s turn in the show “South Pacific.” The most telling historical features, however, are portrayals of famous ships of exploration, including those of Eric the Red, John Cabot, and “Chris” Columbus, pictured alongside the North Star’s trans-Atlantic air routes. Comparing air travel, especially across the Atlantic, with past crossings was a common feature of postwar advertising at TCA.

Map detail showing the compass rose, the Panama Canal, and the popular show "South Pacific."
Map detail showing old and new: “mermaydens,” “sirenes,” and the Panama Canal.

The North Star is deliberately mentioned by name; given that it was TCA’s only aircraft used for trans-Atlantic flights, and that TCA was the only airline using the North Star at this time, this map makes evident precisely who was destined to lead the charge towards the future of travel. TCA, and by association Canada, is portrayed as controlling the future of travel across the “knowen world.” Clearly “when” and “what” are tied together here by placing the North Star inside technological history. Compressing 500 years of travel history onto one map makes the North Star appear to be one of many modes of trans-Atlantic transportation, but also the most advanced and most Canadian.

There are also couple of things this map can tell environmental historians about where TCA flew. First, it is centred on the Atlantic Ocean. Given the recent war and historical connections with Great Britain, many Canadians had family overseas, and TCA advertisements from the postwar decades capitalized on the potential for long-lost family reunions. The trans-Atlantic route, seen here in the cover image for this post, features two North Stars as they “flieth” along their flagship route; the label for the Atlantic Ocean curves upwards, leading the eye directly to them. Next, this map clearly delineates three types of destinations in terms of what appeal they might have for Canadian travellers. The first was Canadian destinations. On this map, the entire North American continent is devoid of cities—except Montreal, TCA’s home base—and is instead marked with animals, geological features, and natural resources such as minerals, salmon, and oil. Canada, therefore, was meant to be seen as a place of natural beauty. Cities mattered much less than the country’s wilderness potential.

The second set of destinations, Europe, features far more political markers. Even though TCA did not fly to Spain, Portugal, or Rome (so marked as a reminder of the 1950 Holy Year) the airline had partnerships with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to provide package flights. Exotic cities are placed at the forefront and, rather than animals, tourist features such as the Eiffel Tower are prominently displayed. Canada may be a land of “mountains and trees,” but Europe was a place of culture. Finally, there were what TCA officials called “sun destinations:” Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Florida. These were advertised in other material as having restorative, almost magical qualities. Not only are they labeled the “Isles of Relaxation” here, but they are magnified and surrounded by mythical creatures, such as “mermaydens,” giant turtles, and flying fish. “Sun destinations” were seen as transformative in ways that the other destinations were not. Taken together, these destinations and their Atlantic orientation show not only the potentials and limits of Canadian transportation technology, but also how state actors hoped Canadians saw their land in relation to the world around them.

Detail showing Canada’s “mountains and trees,” “icy windes,” and “monster Moose.”

This map has the potential to tell environmental historians a great deal about the romanticized, nationalistic way Canadians placed themselves inside their surroundings.  This is on a rather macro scale—Canada is treated homogeneously—but it articulates what sort of country Canada was seen to be: sprawling, open land chock full of natural resources and relatively devoid of human influence. This is especially obvious when contrasted with Europe, teeming with cities and cultural landmarks, and is further reinforced by the map’s deliberate Atlantic focus. This might not be the sort of map that fits easily into the environmental history toolkit, but it actually has the potential to say more than traditional air-route maps from this period, which usually focused on airport cities with little regional texture.

Detail from the inside of the 1950 flight folder. A more traditional air route map.
Detail from the inside of the 1950 in-flight folder. A more traditional air route map.

Although this map was designed to amuse passengers whiling away the hours in the air, it subtly claims the Canadian place on the world stage of air travel, in terms of both technological systems and route infrastructure, as well as how Canada as a country (and potential vacation destination) compared to the other places TCA serviced. Initially chosen for its playful story-book tone, this map has the potential to tell environmental historians a serious story about postwar understandings of nation and technology.

The following two tabs change content below.

Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.