Have you ever wondered about the shapes of the states? I watched a 1-hour Library of Congress video this evening with Mark Stein about “how the states got their shapes” on YouTube. Honestly, I’d never even considered the subject before. But it’s a fascinating topic. According to Stein, there were four major reasons for the states being generally shaped as they are today. Those being:

  • The Revolution – and the subsequent attempt at leveling the playing field for the former colonies.
  • Mark Stein

  • The Erie Canal – The building of the canal impacted those states on the great lakes, and directly affected the shapes of Ohio, Indian, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
  • Railroad Expansion – With the building of the railroads, rivers were no longer as critical to boundaries – and state boundary lines were a lot straighter in the western states.
  • Slavery – Many states were directly affected by compromises being made to either accept or exclude slavery.

You may or may not have wondered about the following geographical features:

  • Why does West Virginia have a finger creeping up the side of Pennsylvania?
  • Why are California and Texas so large when so many of the states in the Midwest are roughly the same size and shape?
  • Why are Alabama and Mississippi almost exact mirror images of each other?

Mark Stein provided answers to these questions, and many more, when he discussed and signed his new book, “How the States Got Their Shapes,” in a program sponsored by the Center for the Book. The author used the Library of Congress’ Geography and Map Division and other Library resources in his research.

The map of the United States is so familiar that its state borders seem as much a part of nature as mountains and rivers, Stein says. How the States Got Their Shapes is the first book to explain why state lines are where they are. Anecdotal in nature, the guide reveals the moments in American history that put the giant jigsaw puzzle of the nation together.

I really enjoyed the video, and learned a lot. Now I’ve got to get a copy of Stein’s book, How the States Got Their Shapes.