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Editor's Blog

After Osama bin Laden, you can feel history shift

Old globes are comforting relics. They show how old rivalries and threats fade -- just as today's will do.

By Editor / May 11, 2011

The Author’s collection of globes (The Ca . 1909 Excelsior Globe is at upper left).

Ann Hermes /Staff

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If you are looking for a date on a globe, you probably won’t find one. Most manufacturers want to preserve shelf life as long as possible. But half the fun of globes – especially old ones – is using your geographical knowledge to guess the date of birth. Boundaries are always shifting, empires rising and falling. The confident imprint that inhabitants of one era put on the world fades with time before vanishing altogether.

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I have a small collection of globes picked up in 
second-hand shops and garage sales over the years. My favorite is a two-foot high Excelsior made by G.W. Bacon & Co. Ltd., 127 Strand, London. It rests on a brass cradle and has a honeyish patina. I imagine it fresh out of the box, sitting in a British shipping magnate’s office a century ago.

I’m guessing it dates to between 1908 and 1910. Belgium has not yet taken over the Congo Free State. The Cape Colony has not become the Union of South Africa. Japan has not yet renamed occupied Korea. Eastern Oklahoma is no longer designated as Indian Territory.

You can rotate the globe (careful, the paper gores are delicate) and experience the idea of the sun never setting on the British Empire. One hundred years ago, the plucky kingdom off Europe’s northwest coast laid claim to vast tracts of the planet – a third of Africa, swaths of the Arabian Peninsula, greater India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada.

The Union Jack was as familiar a sight to a globe-trotter as McDonald’s is today. Now, other than 14 tiny territorial dots – Gibraltar, Bermuda, South Georgia, and the like – sunset over Land’s End in Cornwall is pretty much it for a British day.

To old-school imperialists, romantics, and lovers of costume dramas, that may seem a little sad. But you can also derive comfort from examining a bygone world. All the wars and fears of that era – the clash of colonial powers, the imperious treatment of native peoples – have faded. When you take the long view, you can see that today’s passions over ideology, nationality, resources, and religion will eventually fade as well.

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