Pocket Globes: The World in Your Hand

by Virginia Postrel

The century that began around 1670 was an extraordinary period of exploration and discovery. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek found microscopic animals teeming in a drop of water. Isaac Newton revolutionized physics. The East India Company and Hudson Bay Company expanded the range of British trade. Giovanni Cassini mapped the moon and measured the distance from Earth to Mars. Europeans explored the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and the desert Southwest. Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen. Captain James Cook charted the South Pacific. Never had the “known world” encompassed more or been better understood.
For scientists and adventurers, it was an exciting time. But not everyone had the leisure, resources, or inclination to conduct experiments or invest in far-flung trading enterprises. Did the spirit of the age also fire the imagination of a London shopkeeper or a provincial clergyman?

A pastel portrait sold at auction in 2020 suggests it did. Dating to the 18th century, it shows a man clad in modest black, with a white shirt and shoulder-length powdered hair. He is perhaps a clergyman, middle class rather than aristocratic, likely a villager rather than an urbanite. Held lightly in the fingers of his left hand is an object that embodies the spirit of the age: a pocket globe.

From the Renaissance onward, globes often appear in paintings of rulers, diplomats, and scientists. Think of Elizabeth I’s Armada portrait, Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, or Vermeer’s The Geographer. Jan Verkolje’s portrait of Leeuwenhoek includes a globe.

But the globes in traditional portraits are big. Most require stands. Although it might serve merely as an expensive status symbol, a large globe could function as a useful scientific instrument. It was a piece of capital equipment. You couldn’t balance one on your finger tips or pull it out of your pocket to illustrate a point in a coffee house conversation.

A pocket globe was a different sort of object, “new and ingenious” but not primarily functional. “Its only Use was to keep in memory the situation of Countries, and order of the Constellations and particular Stars,” acknowledged Joseph Moxon, the London printer who popularized the pocket globe. Three inches in diameter, Moxon’s pocket globe came in a case lined with a map of the heavens, making it two globes in one.

Pocket globes exemplified what Adam Smith called “trinkets of frivolous utility,” otherwise known as consumer gadgets. Their appeal lay less in their function than in their cool factor. “What pleases these lovers of toys,” wrote Smith, “is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies.” Like nutmeg grinders, étuis (“tweezer cases” to Smith), and tiny microscopes for examining flowers, pocket globes offered ingenuity you could carry around.

And they were affordable. A Moxon pocket globe with its case sold for 15 shillings, about ten days’ labor for a building craftsman. An eight-inch globe, by contrast, cost 2 pounds (40 shillings), and double that if the buyer wanted the complementary celestial globe. Moxon’s innovation brought geographical knowledge within reach of the aspiring class.

Owning a globe, even a miniature one, signaled an expansive view of the world. “Interest in other countries connected to a larger, more general engagement with natural philosophy to show refinement, learning, and politeness—in short, geography enabled one to be considered a respectable member of a commercial society,” writes historian Katherine Parker. As geographical knowledge changed, globe makers—and owners—had to keep up.

A Moxon pocket globe from around 1675, sold at auction last year, traces the 16th-century voyages of Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish, sources of English pride. It shows the western coast of Australia but suggests a much larger continent extending vaguely to the east. California appears as an island. A century later, a pocket globe with a cartouche proclaiming “A Correct Globe with the New Discoveries” incorporates Cook’s voyages to fill in Australia and New Zealand and adds some South Pacific islands. California has become a peninsula.

Although neither as expensive nor as flamboyantly crafted as a silver étui, a pocket globe was also a delightful piece of decorative art that required considerable skill to produce. The printer first had to design and engrave plates to create flat gores that could later be assembled over a sphere. The plates were the critical intellectual property, which could be sold or bequeathed to form the basis of a new business.

To construct the globe, the printer coated a wooden or copper mold with papier mâché, then sliced the resulting sphere in half at the equator to remove it. For larger globes, this was the stage where the axle and any interior supports would be added. The two hemispheres were rejoined and covered with a smooth surface of plaster. Only then would the gores be meticulously applied to the surface, making the map again three-dimensional. The final step, requiring an especially delicate touch on a pocket globe, was to hand paint color to highlight important features.

Moxon himself represented the class of consumers for whom such affordable symbols of curiosity and worldliness held particular appeal. A printer like his father, he was a successful tradesman, without higher education. While the elder Moxon was a passionate Puritan, Joseph inclined toward science. After a short stint in the family business, he set off for Amsterdam, where he learned how to make maps and globes. He returned with a newly published handbook on globes, which he translated into English and published in 1654 as the first work from his independent enterprise. A few years later, he wrote his own handbook. It proved a hit, continuing  to sell in new editions through the end of the 17th century.

Unlike his father’s religious publishing business, Joseph’s enterprise focused on technical works: books of mathematical tables, handbooks on geography and astronomy, guides to architecture, and, of course, maps and globes. He even sold astronomical playing cards, promoted as “Very Useful, Pleasant, and Delightful for all Lovers of INGENIETY.” Robert Hooke, the pathbreaking polymath who served as the Royal Society’s curator of experiments, bought a set.

Moxon traveled in scientific circles. In 1662, with the backing of prominent mathematicians, he was appointed Royal Hydrographer, charged with making globes, maps, and sea charts. To further his observations, the Royal Society lent him a telescope. He hung out with Hooke, reading him drafts of his manuscripts and visiting his house to drink claret and watch unsuccessfully for the 1677 comet. He befriended the schoolboy Edmund Halley. In 1677. Single-handedly and nearly a century before the famed Encyclopédie, Moxon wrote and published a serialized work called Mechanick exercises, or, The doctrine of handy-works. In it, he documented the techniques of major crafts, beginning with metalworking. In the preface, he defended the worthiness of its subject matter:

The Lord Bacon, in his Natural History, reckons that Philosophy would be improv'd, by having the Secrets of all Trades lye open; not only because much Experimental Philosophy, is Coutcht amongst them; but also that the Trades themselves might, by a Philosopher, be improv’d. Besides, I find, that one Trade may borrow many Eminent Helps in Work of another Trade.

In 1678, at the relatively advanced age of 51, Moxon was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, despite his status as a tradesman (to which the members who cast the four dissenting votes probably objected). He exemplified what economic historian Joel Mokyr calls the Industrial Enlightenment, in which scientific theorists and practical craftsmen informed one another’s understanding and made both kinds of knowledge more widely accessible, leading to greater inventiveness and economic growth.

Like their maker, Moxon’s pocket globes embodied that cooperation. They combined art and science in an innovation that appealed to a new market. Well into the 19th century, globe-makers carried on his legacy of little worlds “made portable for the pocket.”

As charming objects and reminders of an extraordinary scientific age, pocket globes maintain their allure to this day. In 2021, 330 years after Moxon’s death, a collection of 14 pocket globes went on display at Bonhams auction house in London. A dozen dated to the 18th century, a couple to the early 19th. The star of the show was one of Moxon’s. Once priced at 15 shillings, it sold for £187,750.

Virginia Postrel is a visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University and the author of The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.