Summary: For the data viz nerds among us, I share my fascination with a groundbreaking data viz project at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.
In Tim Harford’s excellent book “The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics” the author mentions a set of infographics produced by W.E.B. Du Bois and assistants for the 1900 Paris Exhibition. The “Exhibition of American Negroes” is a powerful collection of photographs and data visualization that provide a strong counter to racist propaganda and ignorance of the time.
I encourage you to explore the entire contents of the exhibit, but in this post I’m going to highlight some of the data visualizations. You can browse the collection here, the charts are on the first two 100 entry grids.
Du Bois and his Atlanta University students made 63 hand-drawn diagrams. The data visualizations were created on presentation cardboard and conceived for a temporary installation at the fair. The original diagrams still exist and have been displayed in various museums.
The hand drawn nature of the charts makes them feel very personal and they tell their stories very well. I expect that the team was pushing the boundaries of data viz knowledge and technique of the time.
This multivariate diagram is one of my favorites
There are charts covering many aspects of African American life — professions, geography, income, property — and importantly showing change over time. This is a chart comparing marital status of African Americans to Germans. Why Germans? I’ll let you research that.
Measured against our current standards for data viz, we could make some criticisms about choices of shape and scale, but I don’t see any dishonesty. One of the design choices I found amusing was what to do when the bar size exceeded the available space. Wrap it!
I hope you find this bit of data viz history as fascinating as I do. I’ve provided some additional reading links below. Again, you can browse the collection at the Library of Congress. I’m curious to hear which visualizations you find most interesting and why.
An excellent overview of the sociological context and impact of the exhibition: “W.E.B. Du Bois in Paris: The Exhibition That Shattered Myths About Black America” by Jacqueline Francis and Stephen G. Hall
WEbDuBois.org The 1900 Paris Exhibition index. List of sources and materials related to the exhibition.