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With the 10th anniversary of the iPhone being marked this month, it’s perhaps strange to think of a time when we didn’t have a map at our fingertips. But as The British Library’s exhaustive new exhibition reminds, once upon a time maps were luxury items, used by merchants, explorers and navigators, but less so by the average person.

The 20th century was when that changed, with maps becoming mass market goods, from the A-Z – invented by painter Phyllis Pearsall in the 1930s, after she became frustrated with her tendency to get lost – to the Ordinance Survey ones familiar to anyone who has ever done a school geography project.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line overflows with content, from maps relating to the major wars and peace treaties of the last century, to those that facilitated new trading routes and the growth of business empires, and those linked to protest, policy and exploration. It’s fascinating stuff for anyone with an interest in 20th century politics, history and culture, but it requires dedication. Given that maps by nature demand close examination, I couldn’t help but think it would have been better if the exhibition had tackled just one area of their application.

Heinrich Berann’s Atlantic Ocean Floor, National Geographic Magazine

But if you’ve got the time, then it’s worth pursuing. I came away with all kinds of trivia – did you know, for example, that in 1914 the Financial Times ran a competition for readers to guess what the map of Europe would like after the fighting stopped (the prize was the princely sum of £25), or that the CND used to print their maps of local targets in colour to make it easier for activists to read them at night?

Rest assured, also, that it’s not just about maps. These are everywhere, of course, but there are also adverts, cartoons, postcards and propaganda posters that happen to feature maps – for example Californian and Floridian citrus fruit packaging demonstrating trading prowess – as well as those used not to depict geographical terrain, but to show demographic or social trends. In one such map of the US from 1914, the country is shaded to record where women do and don’t have the vote; it makes clear how progress on this front began on the west coast and swept eastwards. And there are maps that show the spread of tourism as holidays were democratised over the century, from one explaining the Beatles’ Liverpool hangouts – with a yellow submarine in the Mersey – to an astonishing series produced by the Michelin Tyre Company identifying WW1 battlefields, while the war was still raging in Europe.

OS tourist maps cover proofs from the 1920s, Credit British Library

Equally, there are plenty that go beyond our world, from the first satellite map of earth, actually a composite image completed in 1990 after a decade-long project, to those of fictional realities; Disneyland (with Main Street front and centre) or 100 Acre Wood. Those with long memories will enjoy the map of San Serriffe; not a real place but the fictional island ‘discovered’ by the Guardian for a 1977 April Fool’s Day joke.

Much of what is on show relates to conflict; maps showing the path of war over a dark, tumultuous century, from the Falklands to the Sykes-Picot Treaty and from maps of Auschwitz to one showing hideaways and tunnels in Sarajevo. In our GPS-enabled times, it’s astonishing to learn that to create relief models of the Western front in the First World war, the British forces resorted to cutting up maps and sticking them on top of each other to help officers visualise the battlefield. And it’s sobering, just a generation or so on, to look at the map of Belfast cut into the shape of a rifle, with Protestant and Catholic areas marked out; it was used by army officers on patrol during the 1980s.

There is more than one way to read a map,” a sign points out as you enter, and The British Library has certainly proved that point. This meaty, intelligent exhibition makes clear just how central maps were to the major developments of the last century, and makes you think twice about a resource that is often taken for granted.

Harry Beck’s tube map sketch, courtesy of V&A Museum, © Transport for London

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line, The British Library, until 1 March 2017