“Escape and Evasion” maps were given to airmen during World War II to avoid capture behind enemy lines. Such maps were one of many in the military man’s arsenal, but in some respects this navigational tool represents one of the most significant products of war-era ingenuity. This Pacific Ocean “drift map,” scaled at 1:4,000,000, illustrates known ocean currents and prevailing winds that assisted navigation should airmen find themselves stranded on a life raft. The multiple compass roses represent derivations of magnetic north based on geographic location. The green lines represent the direction of currents May through September, while red lines represent November through March. Unfortunately, tides and currents during the transition months of October and April were impossible to determine and are thus not illustrated.

The first such maps were made of silk, but as the Japanese tightened control of major supply sources, the American military turned to a homegrown team of scientists at DuPont for a solution. The result was rayon, a synthetic-fiber fabric. Fabric maps had many advantages over paper maps: they folded easily and quietly, could be hidden inside the lining of uniforms and flight clothing, and could withstand harsh weather conditions and extended periods submerged in water. The inherent qualities of fabric maps, and rayon maps in particular, were especially important for airmen flying over vast bodies of water in the Pacific theater.

Producing these maps proved to be no easy task, as it was difficult to translate traditional paper-printing techniques to cloth. For this, the Army Map Service turned to the board-game industry. Companies such as Milton Bradley typically printed game boards on linen, which was then mounted to a cardboard backing, a technique highly transferable to the production of rayon maps. By war’s end, over 3.5 million maps were printed by game companies, textile firms, and the Government Printing Office. This map represents one of several in the Cooper Hewitt’s collection.

The escape map and other tools appear in the exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach, 12 December 2014 – 25 May 2015.

Andrew Gardner is currently a graduate student intern and a former summer 2014 Peter Krueger curatorial intern at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He is pursuing a master’s in Design History from the Bard Graduate Center, expected 2015.

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