This essay offers the chronological charts of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), the 19th-century educator and intellectual, as early examples of how data visualization can reveal a range of forms of knowledge. It challenges the universality of the goals of clarity and efficiency when designing data visualizations, and argues for the value of visualizations that encourage sustained reflection and imaginative response. Drawing from feminist and Black studies scholarship, it confirms how visual knowledge is informed by the social, cultural, and political contexts that surround it, and how an awareness of those contexts can lead to more intentional and more effective visualization design. It concludes with a call to expand the archive of data visualization so that visualization designers, in the present, might be prompted to imagine a wider and more capacious array of visual and interactive forms.
Keywords: data visualization, data feminism, critical data studies, design history, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
Before the pandemic moved it online, Edward Tufte’s traveling master class was the stuff of design-nerd legend. Once or twice a month, in New York or Mountain View or Chicago, several hundred aspiring visualization designers—along with a fair number of already established ones—would settle themselves into rows of conference center seats. The room would grow quiet, although the lights would never fully dim. (Tufte, famously, does not use PowerPoint.) And for six solid hours, with no break for lunch, his devotees would imbibe the lessons of his four canonical books: that visualizations of data should be “clear” and “efficient”; that they should present “accurate” representations of the data at hand; and that they should encourage the viewer to think about the “substance” of the data, rather than the “methodology” underneath (Tufte, 2001, p. 13). In this way, Tufte would explain—in a phrase recited from his most influential volume, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information—visualizations could be made to “reveal” the data underneath (2001, p. 13; emphasis in the original).
But what, more precisely, does data visualization reveal? Should it reveal something other than—or in addition to—what is directly captured by the data? Should it show what is missing from the data set, or what cannot be captured by data alone? Or, alternately, should it reveal data differently? Should it reject the minimalism that has long been associated with the field’s best practices in favor of a more maximalist—and, evidently, more memorable—visual style?1
Over the past decade, questions like these have increasingly animated the intertwined fields of visualization research and visualization design. Taking aim at Tufte, either implicitly or explicitly, researchers and designers have challenged the universality of the goals of both clarity and efficiency, unpacking the reasons why, for example, not all charts should be scatterplots in spite of the documented visual effectiveness of that form (Bertini et al., 2020); or asserting even more directly, in another favorite case, that Tufte’s famous formulation of “chartjunk”—by which he refers to the embellishments and other bespoke visual features of a chart that do not directly represent the data—be “put in the trash” (Akbaba et al., 2021, p. 2).2 By the same token, visualization designers and researchers have increasingly allied themselves with those in the fields of critical data studies and digital humanities in putting to rest the false claim that “raw data” is anything other than “an oxymoron” (Gitelman, 2013).3 Through books and essays, conferences and exhibitions, and both critical and creative visualization work, researchers and designers have together questioned the degree to which data and data visualization can ever be separated from the social, historical, and political contexts from which they emerge, and in which they are put to use.4
And yet, the history of data visualization has not undergone a reassessment of equivalent scope. While researchers such as Robert Kosara have lamented the field’s “short and sparse history,” pointing out the dangers of deriving an entire field’s first principles from “a small number of classic examples” (2016, p. 164); and designers such as Stephanie Evergreen have called for an even more wholesale decolonization of data visualization history, citing the centuries-old practice of khipu—the Incan method of recording information with knots on strings—as an example of what a decolonial history might include (2020), the roots of modern data visualization are still most commonly traced to a single source: the Scottish political economist William Playfair (1759–1823).5 Playfair’s time-series graphs, bar charts, and pie charts—many believed to be the first of their kind—provide researchers and designers with exemplary models of the clarifying and consolidating capacity of data visualization that, the work mentioned above notwithstanding, have long been presented as the field’s apotheosis.
One might again credit Tufte with establishing Playfair as the progenitor of modern data visualization.6 But the reality is that most subsequent histories of data visualization have followed suit. In their recent History of Data Visualization and Graphic Communication, for example, Michael Friendly and Howard Wainer position Playfair as “the father of modern graphical methods,” further asserting that “it is only a slight stretch to consider his contributions to be the Big Bang of data graphics” (2021, p. 8).7 Playfair’s work thus endures as an encapsulation of Enlightenment empiricism, and in particular, of the power of visual perception in crystalizing the insight that can lead to new knowledge. Playfair himself says as much: “On inspecting any one of these Charts attentively,” he explains, “a sufficiently distinct impression will be made, to remain unimpaired for a time, and the idea which does remain will be simple and complete” (1801, p. xiv).
But the notion that data visualization should produce ideas that are “simple and complete” is by no means the only way visualization can lead to new knowledge. As a counterpoint to Playfair’s “picture of the past,” this essay introduces an alternative epistemological lodestone: the chronological charts designed by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), the 19th-century editor, educator, and intellectual, which used color and position to represent significant historical events in time (Playfair, 1801, p. iv). Peabody designed her charts to be abstract rather than intuitive; to promote sustained reflection rather than immediate insight. And she did so with a clear goal in mind: to provoke a unique imaginative response in each viewer. Aligning the insight-prompting power of inductive reasoning with her own ideas about the generative potential of aesthetic judgment, Peabody placed her charts within a proto-participatory learning environment that was intended to produce new knowledge about the past, as well as to help envision new pathways for the future.
Figures 1–4 (left to right, top to bottom). The four chronological charts included in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Chronological History of the United States (1856a), which display the significant events of the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. Images courtesy of the Internet Archive. Digitized by the Library of Congress.
The privileging of (seeming) opacity over clarity, of sustained reflection over immediate insight, and of the viewer’s individual interpretation over the data’s inherent meaning, may run counter to the positivist approach that continues to characterize much contemporary visualization research—just as it does the Tuftean view of how data visualizations are best designed. But Peabody’s charts, in their rejection of the belief that every phenomenon in the world can be readily captured and rendered visible by data, offer a valuable historical precedent for the rethinking—currently underway—of the multiple ways by which we might employ visualization to produce new knowledge, as well as the multiple ways in which we understand the nature of knowledge itself. Through an analysis of Peabody’s charts and their instructions for use, I underscore the epistemological benefits of encouraging interpretations of the data that are multiple rather than singular, and show how these interpretations are best enabled by reconceptualizing the source of the insights that led to new knowledge as emerging from the interplay between viewer (or user) and image (or interaction).
This conceptual repositioning of the source of data-driven knowledge results in a flattening of the hierarchy that most commonly structures the relationship between the designer of a visualization and those who perceive it. It also lends additional credence to recent challenges to other hierarchies that remain entrenched in today’s best practices for data visualization, especially those that place purportedly ‘objective’ representational strategies above those that encourage more affective and embodied ways of knowing.8 The result of this analysis is, therefore, not only an additional set of examples that enrich our sense of the history of data visualization, but also—as Peabody herself envisioned—an expanded set of possibilities for shaping future knowledge. These include new ideas about visualization design and insight production, as well as about the range of forms of knowledge—and knowledge work—that data visualization can reveal.
Today, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody is most widely recognized for her proximity to more famous men—in particular, to the writers of the American Renaissance, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and to early champions of educational reform, such as Bronson Alcott and Horace Mann. (One of her sisters, Sophia Amelia Peabody, was married to Hawthorne; and the other, Mary Tyler Peabody, was married to Mann). But Elizabeth Palmer Peabody had intellectual impact in her own right: the bookstore that she ran out of her home, at 13 West Street in Boston, functioned as the de facto salon for the transcendentalist movement. She edited and published the first version of Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. And she is credited with starting the first kindergarten in the United States.9
Peabody was a teacher to her very core. She came from a family of educators. Her mother and two sisters all taught grade school at various times. And in the 1850s, when she set out from her home in Boston to ride the rails, it was with an explicitly educational aim: to promote the pair of history textbooks she had recently written, The Polish-American System of Chronology (1850) and Chronological History of the United States (1856a). She traveled as far north as Rochester, New York, as far west as Louisville, Kentucky, and as far south as Richmond, Virginia, in order to evangelize about her new pedagogical method. The Polish-American System, as she came to call it, was a method with data visualization at its center.
Peabody’s method was inspired by a system developed in Poland in the 1820s and popularized in subsequent decades by the military general (and erstwhile math teacher) Józef Bem.10 In Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, historians Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton describe how Bem’s system “swept across Europe and North America” in the middle decades of the 19th century (2010, p. 205). In the 1830s, they report, it was approved for use by the French national educational system. But Peabody first encountered the system by chance, through a traveling lecturer who briefly boarded with her family on West Street. The boarder, a man named Joseph Podbielski, had come from Poland with copies of Bem’s charts, which he intended to promote on a lecture tour of the United States. While he stayed with the family for only a short time, Peabody remained “captivated” by the charts, according to one of her biographers, Bruce Ronda (1999, p. 227). She went on to devote several years to a study of the Polish System, culminating with the development of her own modified version: the Polish-American System (1850) that prompted her own national tour.
Bem’s system employed a grid overlaid with shapes and colors to visually represent events in time. Peabody’s version borrows the idea of a numbered grid, with each year in a century marked out in its own box. She also borrows the idea of subdividing each box, so that each of the nine interior squares corresponds to a particular type of historical event. In the Polish-American System, as in Bem’s, the top left corner is the space for wars, battles, and sieges; in the top middle is the space for conquests and unions; in the top right is the space for losses and divisions, and so on. Shapes that take up the entire box indicate an event of such magnitude or complexity that the other events in that same year hardly matter. The events are also color-coded, indicating the various countries involved in a particular event. On this point, Peabody makes special note that she employs “a somewhat different, and, as it seems to me, a more expressive distribution of colors” (1850, p. 10).
In The Polish-American System of Chronology (1850), Peabody covers a tremendous expanse of time: the period between 2500 BCE and 1849 CE (what was then the present). But Peabody also saw the need for a textbook that focused exclusively on the United States, and in more depth than she could cover in a textbook on world history. And so, shortly after the release of the Polish-American System, she began working on the book that would be published, in 1856, as Chronological History of the United States. This textbook contained the four full-color plates displayed in Figures 1–4; one for each of the centuries since the first European colonizers set foot on Native American land. As Peabody envisioned it, the basic exercise was to read a chapter of the textbook, which contained a narrative account of the events of a single century, and then match each item in the list of events that concluded the chapter with its visual representation on the corresponding chart.
For example, by cross-referencing the table of events of the 17th century, pictured above, with the corresponding chart, it is possible to identify the founding of Jamestown in 1607; that is the large red square in the first row on the right—red to signal England’s involvement, and its full-square shading to indicate its heightened significance. One can also identify, in the last square on the right, one row from the top, the settlement of Plymouth in 1620. The square is nearly entirely red—again, because of England’s involvement and because of its heightened significance—save for a small teal square in the middle-right position. Teal corresponds to action by the Dutch; this registers the first enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia in that same year. On the side of abolition but by no means its most radical proponent, the square’s ratio of red to teal reflects Peabody’s awareness of—if not an urgency about—the need to end slavery in the United States.11
Chronology—or, the study of events in time—is not, of course, the same as historiography—the study of how history is written. But in Peabody’s mind, the one led to the other: “If you have the dates here [on the charts] represented perfectly by heart,” as she explains in the introduction to students included in the Chronological History, “events are so connected in the narrative of history” (1856a, p. 5). In keeping with the leading pedagogical theories of the day, which emphasized mental recall, students were expected to eventually commit the charts to memory.12 But Peabody’s pedagogy diverged from rote memorization in that her ultimate aim was for any mental picture of past events to prompt an individually constructed narrative of history. For Peabody, the power of this personal narrative of history was immense: it could show “the origin and consequences of national action”; and for the United States in particular—the world’s first representative democracy—it could instruct “every one what to do and what to leave undone, in his own inevitable action,” as a necessary participant in their own governance (1856a, p. 7).
Far from an antiquated line of thinking, Peabody’s belief in the catalyzing effects of chronology remain deeply embedded in many areas of U.S. culture. As a prominent contemporary example, one might consider the efforts of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to replace 1776 with 1619—contra Peabody, the year the first enslaved Africans actually arrived in Virginia—as the starting point for the history of the United States. The goal of this revised origin point, as Hannah-Jones et al. explain in The New York Times Magazine visual feature that introduces the 1619 Project, is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” (2019, n.p.). This recentered narrative would ideally, in turn—in a view endorsed by The New York Times editorial board—prepare U.S. citizens of all races “for a more just future” (Silverstein, 2019, n.p.).
It is not only the narrative of the nation’s founding that can benefit from a recentering of the enduring costs of its history of slavery, or of the contributions made by its Black citizens, however. In her acclaimed recent book, Dear Science and Other Stories, Black studies scholar Katherine McKittrick takes on the project not of history but of science, explaining how an account that centers Black people, Black life, and Blackness more broadly can reveal the “asymmetrically connected knowledge systems” that structure modern scientific inquiry (2021, p. 3). For McKittrick, an awareness of these relational yet unequally weighted knowledge-making systems is what enables her own vision of a liberatory Black science to unfold. But it also offers lessons to scholars outside the field of Black studies—including white scholars, such as myself, who cannot claim to know Blackness firsthand—about the “asymmetrically connected knowledge systems” that structure all of our work.
Indeed, our ways of knowing—about science, about history, or about phenomena in the world—are overdetermined by the asymmetrically connected (and constructed) systems that shape them. Data visualization is no exception. This latter point has been made by science and technology studies scholars for decades—perhaps most famously by feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, who uses the example of data visualization in order to formulate her own influential theory of situated knowledges: put plainly, the view that all knowledge is rooted in a particular perspective, and therefore informed by the social, cultural, and political as well as scientific contexts that surround it (1988, p. 575).13 Crucially for Haraway, as for McKittrick, our awareness of how knowledge is situated, as Haraway would say; or how knowledge is relational, as perhaps McKittrick would say, does not diminish the validity of what we presently know, nor does it foreclose any future knowledge-making. On the contrary, these more nuanced accounts of the perspectives and places from which knowledge is made are precisely those on which, to quote Haraway, “the possibility of sustained, rational, objective inquiry rests” (1988, p. 584).
With an expanded sense of the stakes of acknowledging the perspectives and places that shape our approaches to knowledge production, we might return to Peabody’s chronological charts in order to observe how few 21st-century viewers—or, for that matter, 19th-century ones—could have intuited the significance of the events encoded in the charts without first taking the time to learn how the system worked. A comical case in point: Peabody’s nephew, Julian Hawthorne, who served as her first test subject, recalled that she “labored during some years to teach me all the leading dates of human history,” but that he nevertheless remained “most inapt and grievous” throughout the process, ultimately exhausting her patience (Ronda, 1999, p. 227).
This lengthy and difficult learning process might be viewed as a liability by visualization researchers and designers who continue to champion the ease and efficiency of data visualization; or who maintain that data visualization is best deployed to “amplify” existing thought processes (Card et al., 1999, p. 6). But for Peabody, her charts’ near-total abstraction was precisely the point. She designed her charts to appeal to the senses directly, to provide what she called “outlines to the eye” (1859, p. v). Her hope was that, by providing the outline of history—and, crucially, only the outline—each viewer would be required to fill in the missing parts of the story themselves. The result would be a proliferation of historical narratives, one originating in the mind of each viewer, and reflecting their own interpretation of the data encoded in each chart.
Anticipating claims about both the situated and the relational nature of knowledge production, Peabody’s visualization system encourages multiple interpretations, rather than a single, crystalizing view. This was, again, by design. As Peabody herself explains, the Polish-American System “does not pretend to be what an outline can never be, namely: a perfect frame work for history” (1856b, p. 325). Instead, in order to prompt the insights that might lead to new historical knowledge, the system relies upon the active participation of the viewer. In doing so, it reconfigures the otherwise unidirectional and often weighted relationship between those who design visualizations and those who view them. What’s more, it affirms each interpretation of each visualization as knowledge—and, therefore, each viewer as that knowledge’s source.
3. The Politics of Visual Knowledge Production
Peabody was a lifelong proponent of what might be described today as participatory learning. In the early 1860s, as the nation became increasingly consumed by the Civil War, Peabody found purchase in a personal recommitment to early childhood education. Her kindergarten—the first of its kind in the United States—which she opened with her sister, Mary Tyler Mann, served as a proving ground for her innovative pedagogical ideas. With Mann, she also published a series of texts that document these theories: that physical play mattered as much as formal instruction, and that knowledge was derived not from any external authority but rather from a focused and sustained analysis of “the self-activity of the mind” (1882b, p. 507).14 On her own, Peabody continued to iterate on the teaching and learning materials associated with the Polish-American System (1850). In 1870, Peabody began printing workbooks with sheets of blank charts—"blank centuries,” as she called them—as shown in the figure below, so that—in alignment with her ideas about participatory learning—students could themselves create the visualizations that they would then study.
But the exercise of creating a chronological chart from scratch is, as it turns out, quite hard—not just for us in the present but also for students of the past. Having traveled to numerous archives over the course of conducting research for the larger project from which this article is drawn, I have paged through multiple copies of Peabody’s workbooks.15 These workbooks tend to follow a similar pattern: a page or two of grids filled out in earnest; then a series of attempts abandoned halfway; and then a shift in purpose, the grid becoming a canvas for pattern and unbridled play.
Figures 11–18 (left to right, top to bottom). Images of student-created charts from a copy of The Polish-American System (1850) housed at the American Antiquarian Society. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society. Photos by the author.
The difficulty of the Polish-American System is, as suggested above, both a liability of the form and also the point. Peabody first developed her method at a time when the nation’s future seemed to hang in the balance. The second half of the 1840s had brought an increased awareness of the nation’s growing sectarianism as well as its range of social ills, albeit with a (mostly) optimistic view about the potential of its governing structures to address these challenges. But as the 1850s unfolded, the magnitude of these challenges became increasingly more pronounced. Even as her privilege protected her from having to enter the political fray, Peabody recognized that the task of resolving these challenges posed a degree of difficulty of the highest order. She understood, moreover, that any successful resolution would require sustained effort and thought.
Her goal with the Polish-American System was thus to create a framework, equal parts intellectual and immersive, through which this difficult thinking could take place. “The old world is covered with bad institutions which men have created, very often with positively good intentions, but on false notions, or, at least, without large and profound ideas,” she explains in the preface to the Chronological History. “Whether the new world shall estimate and sift out these evils, or repeat these mistakes, depends on young Americans, who are now sitting in schoolrooms all over the country, unconscious of their powers and consequent responsibilities” (1856a, p. 7). Her hope was that the act of creating the chronological charts, rather than simply studying them, would prompt both self-reflection and new ideas. Put another way, Peabody hoped that by prompting her students to create new narratives of the past, they would also imagine alternative possible futures.
The political context that provided Peabody with the motivation to publish her history textbooks is crucial for understanding both her ideas about the uses of visualization, and the form that her visualizations take. But this context is not easily discerned from the visualizations themselves. Without the knowledge of how to decode the charts, let alone a sense of their national political stakes, the charts’ geometric abstraction prompts a purely aesthetic response. Other charts from the same era make their politics more explicit, however—for example, Emma Willard’s 1846 Temple of Time, which depicts past centuries as the pillars that support the titular temple. In the chart, the 19th century—then the present—is represented as an unfinished column, not yet stable enough to support the weight of the past. On the ceiling of the temple, Willard catalogues key figures from each century, including statesmen, philosophers, discoverers, and poets. On the floor of the temple, she lays out the developments of major nation-states, their paths drawn as rivers subjected—like water levels—to the expansions and contractions of state power over time. Willard places the path of the United States front and center. From the perspective of the viewer, this river flows directly toward them, enfolding them in the expanding influence of the United States: the future to come.16
While sharply divergent from Peabody’s charts in terms of aesthetics, Peabody nevertheless identified Willard as a major source of inspiration, crediting Willard with creating “the most ingenious chart ever besides [her own] invented” (1856b, p. 326). Willard’s influences, in turn, included Joseph Priestley’s New Chart of History, from 1769, among the most circulated charts of its time (see Figure 20); and Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas, first published in 1786 and republished in an expanded third edition in 1801, as introduced at the outset of this essay. According to historian Susan Schulten, Willard appreciated the efficiency of these charts, but felt that they gave “little sense of the dimension, such as the relative importance of periods or the subjective experience of time” (2012, p. 31). Sure enough, while neither Priestley’s timeline nor Playfair’s import-export charts provide a sense of the subjective experience of time, they do offer images that are just as interpretable today as they were at the time of their making.
In point of fact, a “simple and more permanent idea” was Playfair’s primary design goal (1801, pp. ix–x). Much like the 1850s United States, the 1780s and 1790s in Great Britain (and in Europe more broadly) were decades of great political crisis. At the time that he released the third (and most widely circulated) edition of his book, in 1801, the French revolution had only just come to a halt, the result of a coup staged by Napoleon Bonaparte (himself an inspiration for another iconic visualization, Charles Minard’s map of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign). The Haitian Revolution was still underway; it would not resolve until 1804, with the founding of the Republic of Haiti. Meanwhile, the effects of the American Revolution still lingered in the minds of the European elite, as they continued to consider the possibility of additional colonial revolts. Thus, when Playfair explains that he has “chosen the present moment” to rerelease his Atlas because of the “singularity of the situation in which Europe is now placed,” it was this revolutionary political “situation” to which he referred (1801, p. iii).
In some ways quite similar to Peabody, Playfair understood his work as an active political intervention: in his case, as a means of countering the instability that the Age of Revolutions had brought about. Playfair was openly unsure about what the future might hold. In the preface to the third edition of the Atlas, he speculates that “Europe may probably be convulsed with war for fifty years to come,” and professes uncertainty about whether he is witnessing the end of European cultural and economic dominance, or whether its “art and commerce” will prevail (1801, p. iv). But regardless of the outcome—or, I would contend, precisely because of the uncertainty of the outcome—Playfair identifies tremendous value in the clarity of perspective produced by his charts. As he explains:
If [a future of war] turns out so, a picture of the past will be a valuable thing, if, on the contrary, commerce should still continue its progress, this will make the first part of a great whole, which, when completed on some future day, will be a most valuable work. (1801, p. iv)
From these lines, it would seem that Playfair believed that his “simple and complete” images could not only capture the instability of his time, but also could guard against the uncertainty of the future (1801, p. xiv). His goal was to cut through complexity, guided by a belief that less detail—and not more—was what would enable more useful and enduring knowledge.
But a pair of questions remains: for whom was this knowledge truly useful, and for what reasons was it necessary that this particular “picture of the past” endure? As Playfair describes the impetus behind the “form and manner” of his charts, he makes clear that his intended audience is not “any person” in the world, but rather, the narrower world of “men of high rank, or active business” (1801, p. xiv). These men, he continues, “can only pay attention to general outlines; nor is attention to particulars of use” (1801, p. xv). Their concerns are not with complexity, nor with individual impact, because their rank and resources shield them from any personal fallout from the events represented through the charts. The knowledge that is recorded and visualized in the Atlas is valuable to them precisely because it is clear and efficient, and because it allows them to ignore any details that might otherwise cloud their view. The result of this picture of the past is a further consolidation of political and economic power, a result that follows from the consolidating design of the charts.
To be sure, very few of the myriad people who employ time-series charts today do so with a stated aim of consolidating political or economic power. In point of fact, time-series charts are among the most ubiquitous visual typologies in circulation today. But as the contrast between Playfair and Peabody makes clear, there are certain assumptions about the aims of visualization, the methods employed to achieve those aims, and the people intended to benefit from them, that are embedded in any particular visual design. Playfair’s import-export charts advance a belief in what can be gained by the ‘big picture’ view without registering any concern about what might be lost in the details, or about who might be impacted by that missing information.17 The boldly colored data lines, enhanced by the hand-tinting that shades the areas between them, and set against the stark black gridlines, emblematize the graphical authority that design theorists such as Tufte identify as among data visualization’s greatest affordances. The ornate title and formal frame—design choices made by Playfair or in consultation with the images’ engraver, Samuel Neele—further reinforce the impression of an encounter with an authoritative image of enduring significance.18 As viewers, we are not prompted to question the data that we see visualized on the chart, nor are we pushed to extend our inquiry beyond its ‘big picture’ view.
By contrast, the more abstract impression initially conveyed by Peabody’s chronological grids immediately invites—verily, requires—additional interpretation. Her configuration of her data not, following Playfair, according to the cartesian grid, but instead as a visual text, designed to be read from left to right, top to bottom, underscores the intent of the interaction. (What might seem to be x-y-axes that divide each image into quadrants are instead, as Peabody explains, only intended to serve as visual anchor points in an otherwise unstructured field.) Like the process of interpreting a text, Peabody’s charts encourage individual interpretation. The charts may serve as the basis for future knowledge, but they do not serve as that knowledge’s definitive source. This perspective is conveyed not only through the text that accompanies the charts, but through the visually compelling yet nonetheless unintuitive design of the charts themselves.
With the addition of the workbooks, which enabled students to create their own charts, Peabody underscores her belief in a more participatory form of knowledge production. This form of knowledge production further challenges the hierarchy that most commonly structures the relationship between the designer of a visualization and those who view (or interact) with it. According to Peabody’s participatory process, it is the student who is authorized to create as well as interpret the image, rather than the designer—in this case, Peabody herself—who developed the visual schema. While we are no longer living in the Age of Revolutions, or at a time of a formally declared Civil War, we nonetheless continue to face social and political crises of significant stakes. What has been shown by several of the most pressing of these—most visibly, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the unfolding of climate change—is that data visualization will continue to play a prominent role in communicating information and in shaping the terms of public debate. As such, it behooves us, as visualization designers and researchers ourselves, to be better trained to see the politics of knowledge production that are embedded in the visualizations we design, so that they can achieve their intended use.
There is a final lesson to be learned from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and her charts, which has to do with the labor—physical as much as intellectual—that is involved in the production of knowledge. An additional aspect of Peabody’s pedagogy encompassed the ‘mural charts’ that she created in order to center classroom discussion. These were large-scale versions of the charts included in her textbooks, and by all accounts they were dazzling: triangles and squares of crimson, ochre, and forest green, set against a sharp black grid. In her version of a sales pitch, Peabody would “lay [a] chart down on the floor” and invite her would-be textbook adopters to sit around it and contemplate the colors and patterns they perceived (1882a, p. 785).
The pedagogical impact of this embodied interaction was nothing short of transformative. “I have never known a system which placed the events of the history of all nations before the mind with such clearness, so little confusion, and so much permanency,” wrote Eliphalet Nott, then president of Union College, who participated in one of Peabody’s teaching demonstrations (Ronda, 1999, p. 236). Anticipating a decidedly 21st-century vision of the value of immersive education, Peabody staged an encounter with the data that involved the whole body. This was an interaction that, she hoped, would stimulate the imagination to new heights. Indeed, if visualization is to offer “richer understandings [of data] that enable researchers to ask bolder questions,” as esteemed visualization researcher Ben Shneiderman believes, then the mural chart would seem to represent an early apotheosis (Hullman, 2019).
And yet, because the mural charts were not valued as objects of knowledge in their own time, not a single one has been preserved. Scholars even remain uncertain as to many of their basic features, including their dimensions. Peabody’s biographer, Bruce Ronda, speculates that they “must have been much larger than even folio size” (1999, p. 234). And while he does not provide any more specificity, Peabody’s nephew Julian’s recollection of the “huge, colored charts” which “hung on the walls of our sitting room” offers a first-hand account of the impression they made (Ronda, 1999, p. 227). As an additional data point, one might consider the “poster-sized timelines” created by Peabody’s contemporary, Anne Laura Clarke, with the help of her sister, Elizabeth, to accompany a series of lectures on history delivered across the country (Ganter 2014, p. 719). Clarke’s charts were not acquired by an archive but instead kept in her sister’s attic, where they remain today. They measure 5 feet by 3.5 feet and can be best seen in an essay authored by literary scholar Granville Ganter (2014).
The absence of Peabody’s mural charts from the archive has prompted me to undertake a project to reimagine and restage Peabody’s immersive learning experience for the present (Beall et al., 2018; Foster et al., 2017). Working with my research group, in a team that has involved multiple cohorts of students over multiple years, we first created a touch matrix made of strips of copper tape.19 We then fabricated a cloth topper that approximates the visual features of Peabody’s original charts.20 The topper also helps to hold in place a series of strips of individually addressable LEDs, resulting in a 30 x 30 LED matrix that can be programmed to display Peabody’s “painted centuries,” as she sometimes also described them (1856a, p. 9).21 While Peabody used a stick to point to specific events on the grid, the Floor Chart responds to touch; users can press on individual squares in order to cycle through the possible colors of each chart, allowing them to engage their whole bodies in the creation of chronological charts of their own.
Figures 22–26 (left to right, top to bottom). The layers of the touch interface, built with copper tape and a foam spacer; the assembled touch interface; a view of the modular circuit boards for communicating with the LEDs; the LED system displayed on top of the quilted chart; a rendering of the completed Floor Chart. Photos by the author.
The project has required a range of domain expertise, from electronics prototyping to signal processing to circuit board design. It has also required a truly tremendous amount of labor. Each yard-long strip of copper tape needed to be perfectly aligned, lest a small misalignment at one end result in a significant gap at the other. Each of the 900 holes of membrane layer of the touch matrix was required to be cut out by hand, as laser-cutting the holes would have released harmful toxins. Each electrical connection was required to be soldered, tested, and then—in almost all cases—soldered again, so as to ensure that the circuit remained intact. As much an exercise in physical fabrication, the project has become an exercise in the physicality of work itself—of the focus that is required, and the resultant fatigue, of any large-scale project that is made by human hands.
The tedious, time-intensive nature of the Floor Chart project—prolonged even more by the pandemic—provides another path of connection back to the original mural charts. For Peabody did not only demonstrate the novelty of the charts as part of her sales pitch; as an additional incentive, she promised an original mural chart to any teacher who purchased copies of a textbook for their entire class. Writing to a friend in 1850, Peabody revealed that she was “aching from the fatigue of making Charts for the Schools who will take the book.” The letter continues:
Every school must have a mural chart—& there is but one way of making them (until they can be made by ten thousands) & that is by stencilling [sic]… I can do one a day. But I must sell them cheap… To day I worked 15 hours—only sitting down to take my meals—& so I have done all week—so much fatigue stupefies one—but as soon as it is adopted in a few towns I shall be able to hire someone to do this drudgery for me. (Ronda, 1999, p. 235)
Thus, while we lack access to the original mural charts, letters like these attest to the physical labor that was required to produce them. With its reference to the “stencilling” through which Peabody created her colorful symbols, as well as its characterization of the tasks involved in making the charts as “drudgery,” the letter also underscores the gendered dimensions of Peabody’s knowledge work.
It is not a coincidence that Peabody described the labor of making her mural charts in the language of women’s work, and that these same charts were not preserved. Then as now, there exists a hierarchy of work that aligns with the hierarchy of gender that governs the Anglo-Western world. Work that is performed outside the home is valued, both culturally and monetarily, over work that is performed within it. Work that is perceived as more rigorous, or more professional—like, for instance, the political economy that functioned as Playfair’s primary trade—is valued again, both culturally and monetarily, over work that is perceived as more intuitive or more domestic—like, for instance, the teaching that functioned as Peabody’s main employ. Even—or, more precisely, especially—within the art world, creative work that is perceived as high art is valued above work perceived as craft. These gendered divisions of labor are among the primary reasons that Peabody’s mural charts never entered the archive. And they are the same reasons that her charts have not (yet) been centered in the account of the rise of modern data visualization that is most commonly told. But who else are we missing when we fail to include examples like these in the stories we tell about the emergence of data visualization? And what possible future visualization designs are we foreclosing, either intentionally or inadvertently, when we do?
Women’s work of various forms has much to contribute to most larger narratives about the development of scholarly disciplines and professional fields.22 A final example helps to underscore this point: most contemporary viewers, when seeing Peabody’s charts for the first time, observe that they look like paintings by Piet Mondrian, the famous Dutch modernist. To be sure, Peabody’s charts strongly resemble Mondrian’s own bold, colorful, geometric grid. But Peabody’s self-account of the work involved in making the mural charts brings to mind a second point of reference, which is quilting: an artform traditionally practiced by women, and one that has long been relegated to the world of ‘folk art’ and craft (e.g., Ferris, 1983; Markowitz, 1994).
Pictured above are two quilts from the area of Alabama known as Gee’s Bend, a small, rural Black community 35 miles south of Selma that can trace its roots to a cotton plantation that was established there in the early 19th century. While valued by the residents of Gee’s Bend for centuries, both for their aesthetics and for the family histories that they encode, the quilts have only recently begun to be recognized by art historians as key contributors to the development of modernist art (e.g., Duncan, 2005; Kalina, 2003). Exhibitions at the Whitney Museum in New York in 2002, the Turner Contemporary in London in 2019, and others, have confirmed how the quilts “predate like-minded works by their more famous abstract art cousins” (Leahey, 2018).
As Black women who pursued their art while enslaved, and whose work has persisted across generations and through slavery’s perpetual wake, the life experiences of the Gee’s Bend quilters could not be farther removed from that of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a white woman protected by her family’s membership in the Boston elite. But the creative work of the Gee’s Bend quilters, as distinguished historian Elsa Barkley Brown has shown, offers a model that can help structure a range of complex questions about epistemology, historiography, and pedagogy—questions in which Peabody’s work was also engaged. Drawing inspiration from the “polyrhythmic, ‘nonsymmetrical,’ and nonlinear” patterns of the Gee’s Bend quilts, among the variety of Black women’s quilts that she studies, Brown advocates for a “pivoting of the center” of the history classroom—that is, not permanently decentering one perspective in favor of another but instead intentionally and continually shifting the focus from one perspective to the next (1989, p. 926). The result of this pedagogical strategy is capacious and multifold: it allows the artifacts and experiences under analysis to be understood in the context of their own creation, and it allows the students performing this interpretive work to “become the voices of authority in their own education” (1989, p. 927). Ultimately, Brown concludes, “the class is a quilt. It is precisely the contrast which organizes the whole and holds it together” (1989, p. 928).
We might similarly come to understand history as a quilt, as Brown strongly implies and as our project team has literally fabricated. But our work—and now I speak as a ‘we’ in the general sense, on behalf of scholars of data visualization and those who design them—is far from complete. Consider the surprise that greeted me, along with no small degree of pleasure, upon discovering that a quilt created by Loretta Pettway, one of the Gee’s Bend quilters, graces the cover of Edward Tufte’s most recent book, Seeing with Fresh Eyes (2020). More than merely a compelling image—“unorthodox, fresh, amazing” is the extent of how Tufte describes it in the text—we must learn to see Pettway’s quilt, like Peabody’s chart, as a system of knowledge-making (2020, p. 29). For visualization designers and researchers, these two systems helpfully converge. Both employ shape and color in order to represent and recall past events: the quilts, in order to commemorate a community’s ancestors and their stories; and the charts, as we have learned, in order to craft new narratives about the nation’s defining historical events. Both also rely upon sense perception—and more specifically, the tactile experiences of the body—in order to assimilate visual display into knowledge. Whether enveloping oneself in a quilt, or gathering together around a mural chart, the result is a more immersive encounter with the object—and with the events of the past that the object seeks to honor, on the one hand; or on the other, convey.
As Brown reminds us with respect to the quilts, these artifacts are “illustrative of a particular way of seeing, of ordering the world” (1989, p. 926). We might extend this assertion to data visualization. The images and interactions that we research and design reflect our own ways of seeing and ordering the world. This fact does not invalidate the insights that they prompt, or the knowledge that they might help us to acquire. On the contrary, it informs the knowledge that any particular visualization helps bring to light. With a wider awareness of the multiple ways of seeing the world, and a wider range of methods for ordering its data, we can enrich the basis of what we presently know, and—as Peabody envisioned—open up new possibilities for future knowledge.
Throughout this article, I have argued for the knowledge that can be gained by expanding the history of data visualization to include a wider range of figures and examples. These additional examples of early attempts at visualizing data can help inspire us, in the present, to imagine new visual and interactive forms. Some of these new forms might adhere to certain conventions of visualization design, while others might knowingly depart from them. Regardless, there is a deeper lesson that I have sought to convey, which has to do with how data visualization, as information studies scholar Johanna Drucker explains, “produces the knowledge it draws” (2014, p. 3). This knowledge-producing power inheres in all visualizations of data, from scatterplots to time-series charts to haptic, impressionistic grids. It points, moreover, to the necessity of design decisions that account for and reflect the context of any particular visualization’s intended use. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s method of making history, premised on visual abstraction and designed for prolonged engagement, deliberately encouraged multiple individual interpretations of the data on display. In so doing, it helped to advance a pluralistic and nonhierarchical view of how knowledge should be produced.
In addition to advancing a specific belief in how knowledge should be produced, Peabody’s method advanced a specific belief in who was authorized to produce knowledge. Peabody believed that her students were each capable of producing historical knowledge, and that together, they might arrive at a solution to the nation’s most pressing political concerns. We might further expand Peabody’s view of the value of bringing together multiple perspectives, enhanced by the example of the Gee’s Bend quilts, into a broader claim about the need to expand the range of sources—and the range of people—who we enable, as visualization designers, to make knowledge claims. Following the theories and approaches of the scholars introduced in this article, including Donna Haraway, Katherine McKittrick, and Elsa Barkley Brown, we might therefore employ Peabody’s pedagogy as a path to understanding the situated and relational nature of all that we know. Moving forward, more specifically, we might better attempt to design visualizations that value the interpretations prompted by each viewer as they encounter (or interact with) the data on display.
Finally, we might employ Peabody’s data creations—both the textbooks and workbooks that are preserved in the archive, and the mural charts that are not—in order to reflect upon the range of labor that is involved in knowledge work, and the range of people who perform it. How might we value the full range of labor that contributes to the creation of any particular visualization? How might we honor all of those we, as visualization designers, rely upon to perform this work? And how might we ensure that their contributions are no longer erased from history? Here, once again, Peabody’s visual method becomes instructive. Because it authorizes us as viewers, as students, and as scholars, to fill in the details of the stories that we can only perceive in the abstract. Peabody’s hope, which we might carry forward, is that when presented with the outlines of history, we might take it upon ourselves to color them in.
I would like to thank Laura Wasowicz, Curator of Children’s Literature at the American Antiquarian Society, for first bringing Peabody’s charts to my attention. The knowledge and expertise of Lauren Hewes, Vice President for Collections and Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts at the American Antiquarian Society, and Erika Piola, Curator of Graphic Arts at the Library Company of Philadelphia, also greatly enhanced this research. Additional thanks go to Sarah Blackwood, Natalia Cecire, Nihad Farooq, Miriah Meyer, Anne Pollock, Kyla Schuller, Karen Weingarten, and Gregory Zinman for reading this essay’s early drafts.
This work was supported by National Endowment for the Humanities grants NEH FEL-257658-18 and NEH HAA-281011-21, as well as research fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia.
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