MapCarte 101/365: Silk Map by John Waddington Ltd, 1941

MapCarte101_waddingtonDuring World War II, Germany allowed prisoners access to humanitarian aid. One of the items they were allowed to receive was classed as ‘games and pastimes’. The Allies concocted a plan to pose as charities and send clandestine items hidden inside games such as compasses, money and maps. The most famous example was the use of the board game Monopoly by Waddington’s. Files were disguised as playing pieces. Real money was covered by Monopoly money and the maps were concealed in the boards. These were not board games, they were perfectly designed escape kits.


The maps were crucial to any escape as servicemen in foreign lands would have no other way to get to the safety of a friendly territory. The maps were printed on silk since paper made a noise when folded and unfolded, was harder to secrete on one’s person and neither dissolved nor tore. British Secret Service conspired with the games manufacturer John Waddington Ltd who had mastered a way to print on silk and also happened to be the licensee in Great Britain for production of Monopoly. Silk was the innovative and crucial aspect of the design and plan. The map user in this case could not use a traditional map and neither could it have reached their hands. Servicemen were told that if they were captured they were under orders to escape; and to look for escape packages that held a special edition of the game identifiable by a small red dot printed on the Free Parking space.


It’s estimated that thousands of the games were produced and up to one-third of escapees relied on silk maps but since the instructions demanded the games were destroyed there are very few examples remaining. Further, both escapees and Waddington’s employees were sworn to secrecy until the incredible plan was declassified in 2007. Subsequently, surviving Waddington’s craftsmen and the company have been honoured for their part in the successful escape plan. The design of the escape plan is credited to Christopher Hutton, a prolific inventor of escape gadgets and the maps themselves were based on those published by John Bartholomew, the Scottish cartographer, whose detailed maps of Europe provided excellent detail. Bartholomew waived his copyright fee as a contribution to the war effort.

If there is a better example of matching a map product to the users very specific needs then it should be hard to find. Indeed, it’s not the map’s content that represents great design – it’s the map as a product.