States sure are funny-looking. I like states with vestigal tails, like Iowa:


and Missouri:


…although I’ve always hated the Missouri slogan of “The Show-Me State.” What, does that make the rest of us gullible? Besides, Missourians, as far as I know, don’t have a specific character. You know who does?


That’s right, Nebraska. When I gave a talk at Hastings College, the entire auditorium knew the State Song (“Beautiful Nebraska”). Do any of the 19 million residents of New York State know the state song of New York?

I like it when states reach for something that they might not deserve. Take Alabama and Mississippi, for instance, both violently sticking out a body part to touch the Gulf of Mexico:


And what makes Oklahoma so desperate to touch New Mexico?


Idaho seems to have a thing for Canada:


And who wouldn’t? Canada is full of great people. One of my favorite places on God’s Green Earth is Prince Edward Island. I think they should have the slogan “Prince Edward Island: The Island That’s Also a Smile.”


61 thoughts on “cartophilia!

  1. michelle

    Yep, that’s my brother. Do YOU have a brother as cool as mine? Didn’t think so. Eat your heart out, everybody.
    Oklahoma wants New Mexico’s guacamole. God, it’s good.

  2. jon

    One of the coolest, and most obscure, examples of this “reaching” phenomena comes from My Old Kentucky (Adopted) Home. Not many people know it, but if you look at a really good map of Kentucky you’ll see on the far western tip a little dot, carved out by the winding Mississippi River, that is separated from the rest of the state and yet belongs to Kentucky. You cannot get there from Kentucky, only from Tennessee, or by crossing the Mississippi River from Missouri (Quick quiz: did you know Kentucky borders the Mississippi River and Missouri?!?)
    Why on earth would someone have decided that this parcel should belong to a state that has no obvious geographical claim to it?

  3. Piglet

    And there’s a part of Minnesota on the North side of Lake Itasca, that you can’t even get to from anywhere else in the United States, unless you go by boat. The land border is shared entirely with Canada. Yah!

  4. greg

    When you look at how Maryland drapes around Virginia to get to West Virginia it makes you wonder: Does Maryland have a thing for West Virginia, or do Pennsylvania and Delaware just hate Virginia so much that they hired Maryland to run interference?
    Ian – nice blog!

  5. unspecific kate

    I wrote this myself, however, most people in Missouri use the phrase in athletic or drinking contests, or when they are trying to find their way home after a long night of either. Down with frothy elegance:
    Why Is Missouri Called the “Show-Me” State?
    There are a number of stories and legends behind Missouri’s
    sobriquet “Show-Me” state. The slogan is not official, but is
    common throughout the state and is used on Missouri license plates.
    The most widely known legend attributes the phrase to Missouri’s
    U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who served in the United
    States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. While a member
    of the U.S. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Vandiver attended an
    1899 naval banquet in Philadelphia. In a speech there, he
    declared, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and
    cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces
    nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
    Regardless of whether Vandiver coined the phrase, it is certain
    that his speech helped to popularize the saying.
    Other versions of the “Show-Me” legend place the slogan’s origin
    in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado. There, the phrase was
    first employed as a term of ridicule and reproach. A miner’s
    strike had been in progress for some time in the mid-1890s, and a
    number of miners from the lead districts of southwest Missouri had
    been imported to take the places of the strikers. The Joplin
    miners were unfamiliar with Colorado mining methods and required
    frequent instructions. Pit bosses began saying, “That man is from
    Missouri. You’ll have to show him.”
    However the slogan originated, it has since passed into a
    different meaning entirely, and is now used to indicate the
    stalwart, conservative, noncredulous character of Missourians.

  6. jeff

    jon – that little piece of Kentucky was originally on the other side of the river, attached to the rest of the state. But the mighty river, carrying tons and tons of silt down to the Gulf, will occasionally wear itself a new course. Nothing but disregard for the laws of Man – how rude!

  7. Simon

    There’s reasons for some of this stuff. Alabama and Mississippi extend those body parts to the Gulf of Mexico for the specific purpose of giving them seaports, handy things to have in the early 19th century.
    Maryland’s odd western extension comes from having its southern boundary designated as the Potomac River at a time when nobody was quite sure exactly where the upstream part of the Potomac went.
    As for Idaho and Oklahoma, their strange shapes are the result of consisting of whatever was left over after everybody else took what they wanted.

  8. George Lowry

    Don’t forget Point Roberts and Maple Beach in Washington state. Canada is the only land route in.
    (Or out, I guess)

  9. dragline

    jon asked “Why on earth would someone have decided that this parcel should belong to a state that has no obvious geographical claim to it?” jeff posted a mostly correct reply, but the reason the Mississippi ‘decided’ to change course had to do with the great New Madrid earthquakes in 1811/12. They also formed Reel Foot Lake as a result. More info here:

  10. Sean

    Too funny!
    Also, same as that part of Minnesota unreachable by land from anywhere but Canada, check out South Beach, WA. (No kidding… Washington, not Florida.)
    What were they thinking?? It’s not like there is oil on that land… :-)

  11. Ian

    Great, thanks to you guys I’ve just spent the last two hours researching the New Madrid earthquake of 1811. That’s some pretty wicked shit – 60% of Memphis destroyed in the next one?
    I was also going to say something about New Hampshire and Vermont being a ying-yang symbol (both in shape AND in ideology) but it was 4am and my Photoshopping fingers were tired.

  12. Robbie

    Oklahoma, the best state shape in the country, has its ‘great erection out west,’ because TEXAS wanted slaves. After the Missouri Compromise (1854 was it?), which allowed slavery only below the line that currently runs along the northern extreme of Texas’ panhandle (with exception of Missouri). Texas said ‘forget it’ and the slice of land stayed unwanted, unclaimed for a while, before Oklahoma annexed it.
    Oklahoma probably needs to stage some parades of THANKS to its panhandle.
    By the way, you missed the MOST CRAFTY state: Maryland. Note how it sneaks past the Cumberland Gap — in its west — when it’s clear that the end of Maryland is approaching. When Penn & Virg weren’t looking it OPENED UP AND STOLE CHUNKS OF ‘RIGHTFUL VIRGINIA’.
    I propose making a new state of the area and call it ‘Rightful Virginia.’
    While you’re at it, look at what CRAFTY MARYLAND does to Deleware. For NO REASON it sneaks past the Chesepeak and snares miles and miles of coveted marsh land from the Delawese.
    Don’t bring this up in Dover. You’ll get a fist.

  13. Ian

    Okay, since we’re getting serious about this:
    1. Florida takes up WAY too much Gulf coastline. I consider it rude.
    2. James K. Polk should have put his foot down re: Vancouver. There is no way that should be Canadian; Washington looks ready to eat it with butter sauce.
    3. The way Arizona takes that deep angular dip into Mexico is really dirty pool. I know we were pissed off about the Alamo, but really, how much desert liebensraum do we need?
    4. “Rightful Virginia” exacted its revenge on Maryland via the Eastern Shore. Let’s just call it even.

  14. Robbie Edwards

    Hey now, hold on! Rightful Virginia did a Delaware sneak with that Eastern Shore ploy. OK, it’s cutting into Maryland’s steals, if taken literally — but that’s clearly Delaware dirt they’ve flagged.
    Anyone else angry about that faulty nook on the Connecticut/Mass border?
    Or the jagged time zone that sneaks chunks of Oregon into the Mtn Time Zone, whilst Idaho panhandle remains blissfully Pacific?

  15. Claire

    Check out the little “chimney” on Pennsylvania. It was annexed from NY for access to Lake Erie.
    What state wouldn’t want that?

  16. CM

    I’ll never look at a map the same again.
    For what it’s worth, Saskatchewan is the only Canadian province with no natural borders. They just drew it on a map. Literally.

  17. margaret

    oklahoma wants new mexico because it has nothing else to live for. also: the border of texas along the red river changes regularly. there are people who live either in texas or oklahoma year to year because of the river. another note: i think texas has the most pleasing shape, because it’s shaped like a star! and, you know, lone star state.

  18. Vancouver

    hands off. we like our decriminalized pot, our civil unions and our own brand of vilified politicians. some things are stronger than geography, and bc bud counts among them.

  19. Flatlander

    There’s a great postcard they sell in Vermont and New Hampshire that has a rough outline of Vermont on it, with “Greetings from Vermont” along the top. Turn the card upside-down, and it is now a picture of New Hampshire, and the words along the new top say “Greetings from New Hampshire”.

  20. Robbie Edwards

    Texas is the second-best state shape in the country not so much because of its star quality, or udder. To me it’s silver because it looks like A COWBOY LEANING AGAINST A FENCE. States whose shapes are entirely based on natural borders — hey, Italy’s a boot! — do not count. You have to earn these points by irrational borders, nooks and map-making mistakes.
    Oklahoma has a very good kennels program. A lot of people there like that.
    Only 47% Okies realize they border New Mexico.

  21. Umbriel

    Ian —
    Arizona’s angular dip into Mexico is the result of the Gadsden Purchase ( ), which was undertaken in the mid-1800s to facilitate a proposed transcontinental railway. It was inordinately expensive compared to just about every other US land purchase; a price justified in part by lingering guilt feelings in the US over the Mexican War.

  22. romulus

    south beach wa is really known as Point Roberts WA. mostly canadians live there, and the border guards are very lax. There is no regular way to get from continental US to Pt. Roberts except by going through Canada, though of course you could probably boat yourself.
    The story behind it has to do with an old mismeasurement of the 49th parallel.
    the middle and high school kids in p.r. have to be bussed through canada into blaine, wa.
    fun fact: someone tried to get out of a drug case recently by claiming they were in a 300-foot-wide legal neutral zone between the surveyed northern border of washington and the actual location of the 49th parallel. one justice actually agreed with them.

  23. The Mom

    Ian, you remember that when we lived in England, someone toldus that the map of Great Britain is shaped like an east-bound man in a tri-corn hat, riding a west-bound pig. And sure enough….

  24. julio

    nobody’s mentioned the states that chill out with complacent disregard to gigantic bodies of water, i.e. indiana’s disaffection for lake michigan….

  25. SobaFett

    There’s also a little bit of Manhattan that’s unconnected to the island. At some point, they cut a channel just below the northernmost tip of Manhattan. Over time, the water separating this little bit from the Bronx was filled in. The result was a tiny mainland outpost of 212.

  26. Chris Anderson

    West Virginia’s right at the top of this post and no comment about it at all. I’ve always thought that the northern panhandle looks like it’s breaking up a fight between Ohio and Pennsylvania.
    On a sub-state level, I’ve always wondered why New York City’s Marble Hill neighborhood is in Manhattan despite being north of the Harlem River.

  27. Larry D

    Idaho trying to touch Canada? The way I heard it was that Montana (the 4th largest state) was supposed to be smaller and Idaho larger. Montana was a pretty wild place back when they were drawing up the boundries. A survey crew came out from the East to chart the boundries. There are two moutain ranges that run north south in that area. The guides misled (got them drunk in one version) the surveyors and took them to the wrong moutain range — hence the Idaho panhandle.

  28. jon

    re: Florida — I know a native Floridian who refers to Florida as “America’s penis.”
    re: States & Countries looking like people — As I recall from my childhood, “Games” magazine, circa 1978, ran a contest where people more clever than me suggested geographical borders that resembled various people or objects. The only one I remember was that New Jersey looks like Queen Elizabeth in profile, wearing a pillbox hat. I still think of this every time I see Queen Elizabeth, or the outline of New Jersey.
    re: West Virginia — I think I read somewhere once, but am too lazy to look it up now, that since West Virginia was shaved off of Virginia by an act of Congress during the general uproar known as the Civil War era, that its existence was never ratified by the other states, and technically therefore, West Virginia does not exist. This might come as some relief for anyone who’s ever been to Huntington.

  29. Anonymous Canuck

    This is somewhat dated, but my sister used to have a poster on her refrigerator with two pictures of the US. Under the heading “Carter’s America” was a normal outline of the US. Under the heading “Reagan’s America”, Florida stuck out from the coast on a roughly east-north-east heading.

  30. Ken

    ChrisL: Not only is there no geometric reason, those of us who’ve lived in NY (the pretty part) don’t really want Long Island and NYC, anyway. What ugly places. Maybe we can get New Jersey to adopt them. (They seem like they need to be something more than “Long Island’s Parking Lot”.)

  31. ahem

    Don’t forget the ‘notch’ in Connecticut’s northern border… I suspect someone was working from a jigsaw template.
    The bit of Minnesota that’s on the Canadian side is a reservation, which is probably why it’s so isolated:
    Of course, it has a casino.
    As for South Beach, WA — the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver islands skirts into US waters several times a day, given that the Gulf Islands and the San Juans are geographical siblings. It’s only a matter of time before Canada claims the San Juans as its own.

  32. Pam

    There’s an elephant in Ontario – if you look at the peninsula between Lake Huron and Lake Erie and turn the map 90 degrees to to the right, you’ll see an elephant with its trunk raised, ending at Buffalo, NY. And poor Owen Sound is right where the sun don’t shine.

  33. Bruce

    The reason for the Upper Peninsula being part of Michigan is that Ohio and Michigan were fighting early on over the small strip of land between them that contained the great city of Toledo. Congress settled the issue by awarding Toledo to Ohio and Michigan got the entire UP as a consolation prize. A hundred years and a bunch of copper later, it’s still a toss-up as to which one is worth less.

  34. amy

    Ahem. Florida is not limp. we’re slowly trying to strreeeeeetttccchhhh ourselves away from the rest of the United States. Very slowly. We have plans to abandon the panhandle entirely. Alabama can have it. Once our dreams of being an island come true, we’ll be seceding from the Union. You have been notified.

  35. shells

    Speaking as a born and raised Nebraskan, I’m proud, albeit surprised, that you didn’t hear a rendition of the Husker fight song instead of the real state song. (We don’t all love the football brouhaha)
    Another cool thing about Nebraska’s personality, is that when two Nebraskans meet, they can play a sort of “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” and within 6 steps or so, they have figured out they know someone the other one knows.
    But I’ll let you in on our nastly little secret:
    our border river (Missouri) has moved over the years also, and there’s a tiny bit of Iowa inside our state. But we don’t talk about it in polite company.

  36. jonah

    wow.. you must have been really bored.. either way, here’s some more.
    1. if florida was a penis, lousiana would be it’s testicles. two (three?) tiny little testicles.
    and it’s dripping. and i think it’s pierced?
    2. utah looks like a sideways washing machine or a dryer. either that.. or utah and colorado are wyoming’s bed.


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