A map does more than help you get where you’re going. If you ask Phil Langley, owner of Happenstance, an antique prints and framing shop located in North Little Rock’s Crystal Hill Antiques, it can also reveal a little something about the places you’ve been. Langley has collected antique maps for nearly three decades. While many of Arkansas’ small towns have changed or altogether disappeared over the years, what he likes most about his collection is that it preserves these communities as they once were—providing a fascinating glimpse into the past. “It’s surprising how many customers come in and look for their home towns,” he says. “It touches them to see their old streets.”
This connection between past and present is what first attracted Langley to his maps. He has 40 from Arkansas. Dating back to 1901, one shows Pulaski County near the time the farmhouse he shares with his family was built there. Others are gridded government survey maps.
Their level of craftsmanship also appeals to Langley. Many were printed on a pure cotton material, which is thicker and ages well compared to today’s fast-fading wood pulp paper. They were then engraved with black ink, using a steel or copper plate, before being colorfully hand-painted by skilled artists. “An amazing attention to detail,” Langley describes. Not something you’re likely to find in any stage of mass production today, he notes.
Companies like Johnson and Colton, which dominated the map-making industry in the 1800s, also added a characteristic thick, decorative border, making their work highly collectible. It often ended up in national atlases, and with pertinent information about population, demographics or livestock density, served as the only window many people had into the workings of other states.
Their popularity forces Langley to look out of state for Arkansas maps, particularly from the coveted pre-Civil War era. He’s also had luck with old encyclopedias and textbooks. But he doesn’t dwell on rarity or perfection. He simply buys what he likes, makes certain it is in good condition, and then frames it.
In a fast-paced world of GPS navigation, even vintage service station maps, many of which featured fun facts about local tourist destinations, have become collectible items. “It’s a shame,” Langley says. “Technology is great and gets us where we’re going, but sometimes I think we miss out on some of the journey. When traveling, I like to know what my surroundings are and whether I’ve ever been there before. A map also helps me appreciate where I am.”