Chimney Sweep

The Cowboy Cartographer Who Liked California

A Jo Mora map of Carmel-By-The-Sea, produced in 1942. Click to enlarge. David Rumsey Map Collection

Joseph Jacinto Mora knew everything the dogs in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. He knew Bess, a friendly brown mutt who hung around the livery stables. He knew Bobby Durham, a pointy-eared rascal who, as Mora put it, “had a mission [account] and did his shopping at the butcher's himself.” He knew Captain Grizzly, an Irish terrier who went into town with a muzzle and invariably took it with him after persuading a friendly stranger to take it off.

If you look at Mora's map of the city — first printed in 1942 — you'll also recognize the city dogs of that era. They're all stacked in a column on the right-hand side, lovingly described and illustrated, and look as natural as the things you'd more likely expect to see on a map: roads, landmasses, the compass rose. On this particular map, those elements aren't so typical, either: the streets are dotted with tiny houses, and both the land and sea are dotted with busy people. The compass rose is rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise and — as befits an artist's city — is presided over by a painter, an artist, a writer and a musician.

That's the thing about Jo Mora's maps. Over the course of his life, the “Renaissance Man of the West,” as some called him, packed history, geography and personal details into a series of maps of various parts of California. Although he was well-known in his day – “Mora produced works of art that have probably told more people their story than the works of any other Californian,” wrote columnist Lee Shippey in the Los Angeles Times in 1942 – he has largely faded from public consciousness. But spending a few minutes looking at one of his maps takes you back to his era and his own worldview.

Mora at work on one of his Fable Restaurant murals, created for the Drake-Wiltshire Hotel in San Francisco in 1936.Mora at work on one of his murals of the Fable Restaurant, created for the Drake-Wiltshire Hotel in San Francisco in 1936. Used with permission from

Mora was born in Uruguay in 1876. When he was four, his father, the sculptor Domingo Mora, moved the whole family to Massachusetts. He attended art school in New York City – a place full of “steep canyons and underground caves,” he later wrote – and worked as an illustrator for the Boston Herald, drawing scenes from the day's news.

“He was really curious about the American West all the time,” says Peter Hiller, collections curator for the Jo Mora Trust and author of a forthcoming biography of Mora. Even while he was completing his degree and putting together a portfolio for the East Coast, he spent long periods on the other side of the country. He worked as a cowboy in Texas and rode horseback from Baja, Mexico, to San Jose. He lived in a Hopi and Navajo community for two and a half years, learning both languages, taking photographs and painting precise watercolors of Kachina dances. In 1907 he officially moved to California, settling in Mountain View with his wife, Grace Alma Needham.

Over the course of his career, Mora explored a number of different media, including sculpture, painting and coin design. “It's almost easier to list what he didn't do,” Hiller says. But since his first published map – of the Monteray Peninsula, which he commissioned as part of a book on local history – cartography has come particularly easily to Mora. “I felt when I spoke to Jo's son Joey that [the maps] were almost spontaneous,” says Hiller. He sketched a design in pencil and then traced it in black ink on a large, heavy board. It was then reduced in size during the printing process.

A sketch for an unfinished map of Santa Catalina, found among Mora's papers after his death.A sketch for an unfinished map of Santa Catalina, found among Mora's papers after his death. David Rumsey Map Collection

In their final form, the maps are striking and dense, giving the impression of almost limitless detail. “They're almost like books,” says Hiller. “You look at one part of it and put it aside, and then you come back the next day and look at another part.” When he has done exhibitions of Mora's work, he adds, the maps in particular are “like magnets… People are completely absorbed in looking at them.”

Mora referred to his maps as “cartes.” (“I believe that's a derivation of 'cartography,' and there may be a French component to it,” Hiller says.) Stylistically, however, they belong to a genre called “pictorial maps” – detailed geographic illustrations that emphasize compelling storytelling over strict accuracy. Historians trace this trend to the Wonderground Map, a 1914 map of London created by a graphic designer named Leslie MacDonald Gill. By the time Mora created his maps, they were already quite popular and were used to promote travel destinations or depict current events.

Mora's experience and sensibility were well suited to visual representation. Yet even when he worked within the genre, his particular values ​​and obsessions often stood out.”[The maps] “He tells stories about California's history,” says Hiller. “He pays tribute to the different eras” and the groups of people who have shaped the state: Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, Anglo-Saxon gold seekers. At the same time, they are often situational, full of inside jokes and local color. As Mora himself once put it: “I get my message across in a humorous way because I'd rather find you with an understanding smile than a searching frown.”

Jo Mora's map of Los Angeles is rich in local history.Jo Mora's map of Los Angeles is rich in local history. David Rumsey Map Collection

Take, for example, his 1942 map of Los Angeles, pictured above. The top strip is devoted to detailed depictions of Franciscan friars and vaqueros on horses. They seem almost somber compared to the middle strip, which is a riot of visual puns and quirky situations. A lion dances in the Griffith Park Zoo, and the Hollywood Bowl is a giant dinner bowl with two spoons. In the railroad rate war of the 1880s, two locomotives with googly eyes and boxing gloves fight.

To illustrate the city's increasing popularity, he draws a series of women, all dressed in the style of their era, inflating giant balloons with population numbers. “Oh, crap!” is written on the balloon of the 1950s woman, who is in her underwear or perhaps a bikini. “There's not enough room in this damn drawing to show the future. And how am I supposed to know how women will dress!”

As one such joke shows, if you read the maps as closely as is required, you will find that they are entirely of their time in other ways as well. The Carmel-By-The-Sea map has a drawing of a Native American alongside a racist caricature of the Native American language. There are few black people on his maps, and when they do, they are usually in service positions. Hiller says, “Of course he meant no disrespect, but a few times he did get lost in what you would call cliches. Social cliches.”

Jo Mora invites you Jo Mora invites you to “keep your mouth straight” as you look through his map of the state. David Rumsey Map Collection

Some maps were commissioned, usually by businessmen who had an interest in attracting people to a particular area.”[Mora] was something like Gumby,” says Hiller. “He was so flexible that when he got a project and didn't know how to do it or how to implement it for the client, he always found a solution.” In 1928, for example, Marston's Department Store commissioned Mora to draw a map of San Diego, which eventually became a seamless collection of facts about the store and the city as a whole.

Others were dreamed up by Jo's son and business partner, Joey. “Joey suggested many motifs over the years, and Jo just sat down and made the maps,” says Hiller. Joey then sold them to trading posts and gift shops. One of them – a 1931 map of Yosemite National Park, full of miniature wildlife and tourists getting into mishaps – was particularly popular. “Yosemite is so sublime and reverently solemn that perhaps a little humor can help us come to terms with the triviality of man,” Mora wrote in the map's caption.

Sometimes that humor came from shrinking himself down. By studying the journals Mora kept during his own trip to Yosemite, Hiller was able to spot two tiny Jos on the map – one taking photos at Nevada Falls and one drinking from a canteen under Sentinel Dome. “The sale of those maps helped the family through the Great Depression,” Hiller says. “People were willing to spend 50 cents on them, and that was at a time when money was tight for everyone.”

Mora died in 1947, having made about a dozen cards. One of his last was of Carmel-By-The-Sea, where his family eventually lived. Perhaps better than any other, his life is evident in this card. Hiller is convinced that the two small figures on horses in the upper left are his children, Patty and Joey. And then there is the series of city dogs – one of which Jo must have known particularly well. “Mike Mora could climb a ladder like a chimney sweep,” he wrote of the drawing of a smiling, shod dog. It's his card – he gets to immortalize his dog.

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