NHA Acquires Rare Document from The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, Including Embossed Outline Map of Nantucket

The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind annual report of the trustees (1841)

The Nantucket Historical Association is excited to announce the acquisition of an 1841 copy of the Perkins School for the Blind’s annual report. Although seemingly unrelated to Nantucket at first glance, the rare booklet contains an embossed outline map of Nantucket, an early sample of the output from the school’s newly established print shop.

Dr. S.G. Howe, director of The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, improved the process for printing books for the blind, including modifying common alphabet type so that it was easier to print (known as “Boston line type”). He was determined to set up a printing press at the school, and visited both Nantucket and New Bedford to raise funds of $15,000, which allowed him to buy cutting-edge printing equipment that could fit twice as much text on the page. The first book printed in Boston line type, Acts of the Apostles (1835), was dedicated to the inhabitants of Nantucket and New Bedford. It is possible that the lasting impact of Nantucket’s contribution to Perkins’s printing shop is what led the school to create and include an embossed map of the island in its annual report.

Although Louis Braille was developing what would become a universal writing system for the blind—that subsequently became synonymous with his name—it was unknown to Howe at the time, and his Boston line type would remain the standard in the U.S. for several decades.

“This is one of those discoveries that illustrates the island’s impact beyond its own borders, and it must be showcased on Nantucket. We believe that there are only a few remaining copies of this remarkable map, which might be the earliest example of cartographic printing for the blind. This map, quite apart from its aesthetic beauty, illuminates early efforts to transmit information to the visually impaired. It is also noteworthy that the sperm whale developed other senses, in its case echolocation, to navigate in the darkness of the deep,” states Amelia Holmes, Associate Director of the Research Library.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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