March 22, 2016–Phyllis Pearsall, A to Z Mapmaker
The easiest thing to do in London is get lost. In 1935, Phyllis Pearsall was exactly that, lost in the Belgravia area of London on a business errand. By 1936, Pearsall had founded the A to Z Map Company and found her way to becoming one of the most notable and useful mapmakers of the Twentieth Century.
Her journey to celebrated mapmaker has its twists and turns, no less frustrating than the labyrinthine streets of London at times. She was born in 1909 in the Dulwich area of London to an artist mother and a Hungarian immigrant father who had started his own mapmaking company, Geographia. By the time she was 9 years old, her father had left for London. Then, by the time she was 14 years old, her mother had remarried and her stepfather kicked her out of the house.
Pearsall left for Paris to teach at a boarding school. Life was difficult for her. She learned Fench and poetry at The Sorbonne, while sleeping on the streets and warming herself on library radiators. She eventually married, and after nine years separated then found herself back in London where her father contacted and asked her to publish a new world map he had produced in America.
So inadvertently she became a map publisher, learning the jargon of cartography and the ins and outs of selling directly to customers. It was during one of these trips to sell to her customers in the Belgravia area that Pearsall got turned around and totally lost and wonderfully inspired to create her first A to Z Map.
She founded The Geographers A to Z Map Company, and by the time she published her first map in 1936, she had walked some 23,000 streets in London, 3,000 miles on foot, cataloging street names, bus and train routes, museums, palaces, etc.
“Slapdash or non-existent records or petty bureaucrats’ refusal of entry sent me checking on the ground–chaotic after checking maps,” she said, in her book A to Z Maps: The Personal Story. “Often in the maze of many a turning off many a side street I found myself back where I started, or, completely lost, had to ask the way.”
She created an index of street names and woke at 5am to set out exploring and mapping, walking 18 hours a day. She was bedeviled with setbacks. Map sellers did not want to deal with her–the only woman map publisher. Once she had completed her map, the City of London up and changed over 2,000 street names with no warning. She kept the changes in a shoebox until she could incorporate them into her mapping. She kept the shoe box on an open windowsill. (WHY?!!!) Of course a sudden wind took hold of the shoe box and the last Pearsall saw of it, her cards and notes were driving away on top of a bus.
Eventually her A to Z Maps became a fixture, used by Londoners and tourists. They are standard issue to every London Police Officer. Pearsall, who died in 1996 just before she turned 90, was a brilliant map maker and savvy businesswoman. Today, the company she founded employs 129 people and publishes over 350 titles. Before her death, she gave up the right to any company dividend, forbade board meetings and made her staff one hundred percent holders of the company shares.
Her business objective was “a commitment to natural and sustainable growth… in the hope of bringing together a work team that would appreciate and thrive (both in their work and in their private lives) in an atmosphere of stability, mutual trust, honesty and high endeavor.”