In the era of smartphones equipped with maps, it’s easy to forget that we once had to rely on street atlases to find where we’re going. While survey maps of London existed long before the 20th Century, it was London: A to Zed from Phyllis Pearsall that really changed everything. With millions of copies printed and sold, the Geographers A to Zed Street Atlas still finds relevance today as modern technology for Apple Maps and Google Maps can sometimes be unreliable. Check out these ten interesting facts about the A to Zed Street Atlas below.
Maps certainly help us find our way, and that’s actually what inspired Phyllis Pearsall to create the street atlas in the first place. The story goes that she was on her way to a party in Belgravia in 1935 when she got lost. She had a survey map that was at least 16-17 years old and inaccurate.
The atlas’s visual style has certainly been a great part of its success. Bright colors, wide streets, and clean lines, coupled with its use of Sans Serif font, all helped make it easy for people to use. The look has become so iconic it’s incorporated into the works of artists, musicians, and writers as well as being as iconic as the Routemaster bus and red telephone boxes.
I Would Walk 3,000 Miles
Using her background as a portrait painter, Pearsall claimed that she started mapping out London streets by walking over 3,000 miles. Pearsall claimed that she would get up around 5 AM every day and spend 18 hours walking London’s 23,000 streets. She also claimed that the atlas she produced had the unique quality of being the only one at the time to feature house numbers.
Not Just London
Geographers’ A-Z Map Company got so popular that it develops maps for cities all over the United Kingdom.
R for Rejection
As with most great ideas, Pearsall got a lot of “Nos” before she hit it big. After having 10,000 copies of the A to Zed Street Atlas printed in 1936, she shopped it around to booksellers for distribution. Pearsall heard no form all the major retailers including Hatchards, Selfridges, Foyles, and W.H. Smith, which initially gave her the run-around before agreeing to a run of 1,250. The atlases sold successfully and Pearsall was eventually making regular deliveries to rail stations.
Once More, With Feeling
The London A to Zed Street Atlas has even inspired a musical—The A to Z of Mrs P, all about Phyllis Pearsall’s life and development of the atlas.
Pearsall’s atlas claimed its 23,000 streets were “9,000 more than any other similar atlas index”, though, like most advertising, this wasn’t quite the case. While the total number of streets is true, another collection of street maps before her had them all as well. Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of London and Suburbs was first published in 1908 had the same number of streets. However, what made the A to Zed Street Atlas more popular was its visual style, something clearly assisted by Pearsall’s artistic talents.
Adjusting to a Changing World
Even though the advent of new mapping technology put a dent in the A to Zed Street Atlas’s sales, the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company has found ways to be competitive and turn a profit. In addition to publishing the print editions of the atlas, it has also developed a phone app and satnav.
Oranges and Lemons
The first editions of London A to Zed Street Atlas were printed in black and white, Geographers’ A-Z Map Company limited eventually started to print them in color. A-roads were colored orange while B-roads were colored yellow. Eventually, the road colors entered the vernacular of London’s cabbies, who referred to them as “oranges” and “lemons”.
In Maps We Trust
While existing as a private company for years, Pearsall made the Geographers’ Map Company a trust in 1966, so it could not be bought out, thus guaranteeing employment for the company’s personnel.
John Evans says
Still got a London A-Z on the table by the front door and it gets used too!
Julia Fishwick says
I have two copies at home here in Milan. It may be vintage but it is lovely reading especially since we have been isolated at home for almost a month.