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National Perspective | CULTURE

Texas Carves a Unique Niche

The map is the Lone Star State's biggest icon--a melding of merchandising and cartography.

February 17, 1998|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — The state of Texas is in good shape. Make that, in a good shape.

Big, boxy panhandle at the top. Long, snaking dagger at the bottom. Sharp, pointy arrow to the west. Swollen, squiggly-edged blob to the east. No other state among the Lower 48 is as big. No other state is as recognizable. And no other state is as potent of an icon, its outline reproduced in everything from kitschy souvenirs to advertising logos to government proclamations.

Whether you are Texan by birth or by heart, there are hundreds of map-themed treasures to reaffirm your allegiance: Texas-shaped ashtrays, Texas-shaped earrings, Texas-shaped sunglasses, Texas-shaped pot holders, Texas-shaped cutting boards, Texas-shaped lawn ornaments, Texas-shaped crossword puzzles and, for those legendary "eyes of Texas," Texas-shaped makeup kits. At the Big Texan Motel in Amarillo, you can swim in a Texas-shaped swimming pool. At the public zoo in Fort Worth, you can stroll on Texas-shaped cobblestones. At college football games here in the capital, you can watch the University of Texas marching band turn itself into the shape of Texas.

The smallest Texas outline can be found in the pages of the Texas Monthly magazine, which uses a one-eighth-inch map to punctuate the end of its articles. The largest is said to be a 400-foot-wide grove of trees planted by a Midland farmer. Texas license plates sport a silhouette of the state. So do vehicle inspection stickers and rural highway markers. Beer companies regularly salute the map, promoting their suds with neon Texas-shaped signs and aluminum Texas-shaped labels. If beer is not for you, try sipping something else--poured over Texas-shaped ice cubes--while munching Texas-shaped chips or Texas-shaped noodles.

"Tex-map mania." That's how University of Texas history professor Richard V. Francaviglia describes this phenomenon, a melding of cartography and merchandising unrivaled by any other state. "Some of this stuff is so delightfully tacky," said Francaviglia, who boasts more than 1,000 map-themed artifacts in his personal collection. "But there's also some deep reasons why it's done."

Francaviglia has outlined those reasons in a scholarly tome, "The Shape of Texas," which is devoted to the map as a metaphor--not just for geography, but for history, identity and culture. "The map of Texas is a symbol of Texan-ness," said Francaviglia, a 54-year-old non-Texan who heads the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and the History of Cartography at the university's Arlington campus. "I don't know too many other places that do that with their state."

One element of "Tex-map mania" is purely aesthetic, a fluke of nature, war and compromise. Texas, after all, was not Texas until 1836, and its distinctive boundaries--the Rio Grande, the Panhandle, the El Paso prong--were not officially carved out of Mexico, New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma until 14 years after that.

Unlike the bland geometry of, say, Wyoming, the shape of Texas is singular, an image rarely found in nature or re-created by accident. Unlike some of the slim New England states, Texas has sufficient volume with which to craft a souvenir or frame an advertisement. And unlike California's vertical and bent form, which Francaviglia critiques as "inherently unstable," Texas is almost as wide as it is tall, a symmetry that lends itself to the world of graphic design.

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But a functional and unmistakable map only explains half of the mania. The place being depicted by that map must also represent something special--in this case, a Western mythology of independence and opportunity that is at the heart of the American experience. Although every state has its boosters, Texans share a pride in theirs that borders on the irrational. Adults still leap to their feet and belt out pro-Texas anthems, without having to fake the words. Where else could a simple anti-littering slogan, "Don't Mess With Texas," be elevated into a mantra, appearing on T-shirts, bumper stickers and postcards (against a backdrop of the Texas map, of course)?

Because that map bears a vague resemblance to a star, or perhaps a crucifix, Francaviglia takes the metaphor even deeper. At its most profound, he argues, the shape of Texas is a spiritual icon, conveying "the power of birth, martyrdom and resurrection." That may be a stretch, but the story of Texas' creation--of the sacrifice and valor that went into the founding of a free republic 162 years ago--inspires a reverence here that is nothing short of sacred.

And for those truest of believers, there is the ultimate map: a Texas-shaped gravestone.

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