De la peau de mouton au papier synthétique : une histoire des supports des cartes géographiques

From sheepskin to synthetic paper: a history of geographic map supports

The history of papers used in cartography dates back to the time when cartography emerged as an important tool for navigation and representation of the geographic environment. Since then, the papers used have evolved according to needs and technological advances. In this article, we'll explore the history of papers used in cartography and discover the advances that have shaped the field over time.

The Middle Ages: the origin of cartographic supports

The first maps, many engraved on parchment, were much more than a simple means of representation: they were witness to man's insatiable curiosity for the world around him. In a time when technology was non-existent and every tool was fashioned by hand, mapmaking was an art as well as a science.
Parchments, made from the skin of animals such as sheep, goats or calves, were meticulously prepared to provide a flat, smooth surface. Their high cost and delicate nature made the work of cartographers all the more complex. A layout error could compromise hours of work. Despite these constraints, they managed to produce maps of incredible precision, sometimes with artistic embellishments.
Among these cards, portolans hold a special place. These medieval maritime maps were intended for navigation in the Mediterranean Sea. Very detailed, they represented the ports, the coasts, and were decorated with radial lines, the "rhumbs", which indicated the directions to follow.
One of the most famous portolans is undoubtedly the "Pisan map", dating from the end of the 13th century. Named after its place of discovery, Pisa, this map is not only notable for its accuracy, but also because it features part of the South American coast, revealing advanced geographic knowledge for its time.
Map of Pisan
Pisane map (I don't have an original Portulan!)
By observing these parchments and portolans, we discover a rich heritage of ancient cartography, a reflection of man's desire to understand and explore the world around him. These works, whether purely functional or decorated with embellishments, bear witness to the passion and mastery of these cartographers who, century after century, traced the contours of our knowledge of the world.

The end of the Middle Ages: the beginnings of paper in the West

At the end of the Middle Ages, a major transformation occurred in the world of cartography and writing: the transition from parchment to paper. Scrolls, while elegant and durable, came from a lengthy and expensive manufacturing process, involving the processing of animal skins.
The arrival of paper, made from linen or hemp rags, marked a real revolution. Less expensive and more flexible, paper was quickly adopted across Europe. The first paper factories emerged in Spain and Italy, taking advantage of techniques imported from the Orient, and their know-how quickly spread across the continent, notably with the invention of printing.
For cartographers, the advent of paper was a blessing. Not only did it provide a medium that was easier to handle, but it also allowed them to make preliminary sketches, test ideas and correct their work with unparalleled ease. Additionally, the ability to mass produce identical copies allowed for a wider distribution of maps, making cartography a more accessible and widespread discipline.
In short, the adoption of paper opened the way to major advances in cartography, allowing cartographers to work with greater ease and share their knowledge of the world more widely.

18th and 19th century: industrialization of paper production

The 18th and 19th centuries in Europe were centuries of upheaval and innovation in many fields, and cartography did not escape this dynamic. The industrialization of paper production played a crucial role in this development, providing cartographers with a much wider range of media on which to work.
With the rise of machines and the improvement of manufacturing techniques, paper, once produced by hand and in limited quantities, became widely accessible. This increased access to a diversity of papers directly influenced the way maps were produced, distributed, and used.
The different types of papers available offered a variety of textures and strengths. Coarse papers, sometimes rough to the touch, were generally used for preliminary sketches, sketches or maps intended for everyday, pragmatic use. On the other hand, thin, smooth, high-quality papers were reserved for more elaborate maps, often intended for a scholarly audience, institutions or navigators requiring precise details. These high-end papers allowed better adhesion of the ink, thus guaranteeing sharper lines and finely represented details.
The abundance of paper also allowed a multiplication of editions. Cartographers could now update their maps more frequently, quickly adapting to geographic discoveries or political changes. This flexibility was essential in an era marked by exploration, colonization and revolution.
In addition, this industrialization has democratized access to cartography. Formerly reserved for an elite, Cassini maps or even General Staff maps have become everyday objects, used by traders, travelers, teachers and even the general public.
Detail of a Cassini map
Detail of a Cassini map
Thus, the 18th and 19th centuries, by combining technical innovations and intellectual aspirations, redefined cartography, propelling it towards new horizons and making it more central than ever in European society.

Card holders in the 20th century

The 20th century marked a watershed in the history of cartography, mainly thanks to technological advances in printing and scanning. While previous centuries had seen significant progress in the quality of paper and printing techniques, it was truly in the 20th century that these developments reached a new level, notably with the advent of the IGN in 1940.
With the rise of modern printing techniques, including offset lithography and digital printing, the types of papers used in cartography have undergone substantial changes. Special papers, designed to optimize print quality, have emerged. These papers were often treated with special coatings that allowed for better ink adhesion, ensuring higher resolution and finer details.
Weather resistance has also become an important criterion, especially for cards used outdoors or in difficult conditions. Some papers were thus treated to be waterproof or resistant to moisture, a crucial characteristic for topographical maps used in varied environments, ranging from rainforests to arid deserts.
Sustainability was another key factor in the development of these specialty papers. With the increase in the use of maps in areas such as research, military or exploration, the need for maps that could withstand the wear and tear of time and intensive use was paramount. Reinforced papers, often laminated or treated with preservatives, have therefore been created to extend the longevity of cards.
Detail of an IGN map
Detail of an IGN map
At the same time, the advent of digital media has offered a new dimension to cartography. Although paper remains a popular choice for some applications, the transition to digital maps has opened up new possibilities in terms of sharing, storage and interactivity, without sacrificing quality or accuracy.
In summary, the 20th century was a period of dazzling innovation in the field of cartography, revolutionizing not only printing techniques but also the basic materials used. These developments have enabled unprecedented levels of precision, resilience and durability to be achieved, meeting the needs of an ever-changing society.


In conclusion, the history of papers used in cartography reflects the evolution of technology and cartography needs. From animal skin to industrial paper production, coated papers and specialty papers for digital printing, papers used in cartography have evolved to meet the needs of engraving, printing and cartography in general.
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