ISOTYPE Book: Florence, Only An Ocean Between

The book Only An Ocean Between by Lella Secor Florence contains some of the most iconic ISOTYPE charts. It was published in 1943, as part of a small series called America and Britain.

Unlike some other ISOTYPE books, this one (and the other two in the series) advertise the charts right on the cover. This one contains 18 pictorial charts that are itemized in a separate list (similar to the list of photographs), but never referred to in the text.

After a few maps, we get to the data! Two charts (not next to each other in the book) show climate and weather. The stylized maps on the left show the U.S. as at least somewhat two-dimensional, while Britain gets only one dimension. The large ranges of temperatures in each color make the countries appear a lot more uniform than they really are.

While these are slightly unusual charts for the ISOTYPE Institute, the Weather chart does have the repeated symbols that make the classic ISOTYPE charts (note the heavier rain lines in New York!).

Another unusual, but nevertheless rather well-known chart is the one comparing the time it takes to travel between Britain and the U.S. Ships were still the main means of transportation in 1943, but the text paints a future with breakfast, lunch, and dinner on different continents.

The chart of the populations of Great Britain, the British Empire, the U.S., etc., is perhaps the most iconic ISOTYPE chart. It may not be the most racially sensitive by today’s standards, but the goal seems to have been to show diversity. Whoever wrote the caption was surprised by the number of Africans in the British Empire as compared to the U.S. (though seems somewhat obvious, given the considerable number of British colonies in Africa).

The next chart is an interesting cross between classic ISOTYPE and direct representation of density. By scaling areas the same and showing population with symbols, it’s possible to directly see the differences in density. There’s a certain amount of rounding error here (rounding Alaska down to zero population), but the differences in density between the old and new worlds are evident either way.

This book contains a number of maps, some of them fairly straight-forward, but some of them with overlaid information. Two maps show altitude and vegetation using a combination of ISOTYPE symbol repetition (though not to show data) and a simple map with landscape cross-sections. This one of the U.S., which is much more interesting than the rather sparse U.K. one (which only has three cross-sections), packs quite a bit of information into a very readable map.

Continuing the iconic charts, this one of the kinds of live stock in the different countries is perhaps the first one I ever came across. It nicely shows off the basic ISOTYPE idea: repeat objects that are easy to recognize, use a simple multiplier so that the reader can figure out the number without having to label the charts. Also, be smart about using per-capita numbers (this is almost always done correctly, though I’ve seen an example or two where it was missing – coming up in some of the other books).

Not all charts are winners, though. This one, showing imports and exports in 1935, did not have to take up an entire page to make its point. It is interesting to see how much more trade was going on between the U.K. and others in 1935, though I suspect that these numbers had changed quite a bit even by 1943 (and are certainly vastly different today).

Finally, another well-known chart, spread over a double page: the merchant ships of the world, 1914 and 1939. Besides the data being interesting, and how much things had changed over the years, it’s interesting to ponder the scale of the numbers. It would have been difficult to show the sailing vessels in 1939 in a smaller illustration. Even so, their number was so small that they had to be cut in half for the British Empire and the rest of the world.

One potential issue with this last illustration is that it’s easy to misread as the number of ships, rather than shipping tonnage. It would be interesting to also see ships and how they had grown in size over that time.

The book is an interesting historical document today, both because of the numbers and the way it was written. Florence cites many numbers in the text, drawing comparisons between the United States and Europe. At the same time, the writing is far from dry, with lots of exclamation points, quotes from people who had visited different places, and a generally very romantic idea of living in the U.S. (the book was published in London and clearly written for a British audience).

Despite the very numbers-heavy way of writing, however, the ISOTYPE charts are not mentioned in the text and presumably were done after the text had been written. Some of them directly speak to topics in the text, some seem to be more loosely based on it and data that was available – at least that’s my explanation for the different years the data is from.


Check out the rest of the series on ISOTYPE books! I’m posting more on a roughly monthly schedule.