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How the States Got Their Shapes
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How the States Got Their Shapes

3.49  ·  Rating details ·  2,827 ratings  ·  547 reviews
Why does Oklahoma have that panhandle? Did someone make a mistake?

We are so familiar with the map of the United States that our state borders seem as much a part of nature as mountains and rivers. Even the oddities—the entire state of Maryland(!)—have become so engrained that our map might as well be a giant jigsaw puzzle designed by Divine Providence. But that's where the
Hardcover, 332 pages
Published May 27th 2008 by Smithsonian
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3.49  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,827 ratings  ·  547 reviews

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Sep 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Great intro to understanding state history. Some of it made sense. Some of it was a little too vague, but overall, it will keep your interest and leave you wanting to dig up more on a bunch of states -- even beyond the ones you've lived in. Great for a quick read of a few pages every night. Also good to show your kids and expose them to other states at a younger age.

About Me
For those new to me or my reviews... here's the scoop: I read A LOT. I write A LOT. And now I blog A LOT. First the boo
Sep 20, 2008 rated it liked it
This book is divided into 50 short chapters, each detailing how a U.S. state acquired its shape. Easy to understand.

This book at first fascinated me. I love history, and I love maps even more. I can just sit and look at a map for hours, running my mind over the lay of the land. So, I was hooked. How did West Virginia get that little finger of land that reaches toward Pittsburgh? Why aren't Vermont and New Hampshire just one regular-sized state? Why did Wyoming take a bite out of Utah, and not th
Jan 03, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: any geography geek
Shelves: history, 2009
read half of it in one sitting. I'm so not cool. Toward the end though, it got pretty repetitive. The strategy of covering every border one state at a time is good in theory, but if read from cover to cover, could be done in about 25 pages. Things I learned from the book:
1. There was a whole lot of bad surveying going on.
2. Panhandles are the most telling of the political atmosphere back then. Oklahoma has a panhandle because Texas wanted to be a slave state. Florida has a panhandle because it w
Jim Townsend
Five-plus stars for a wonderful book on an oddity of United States history; how, and more fascinatingly, why, the jigsaw-puzzle layout of the country came to be. No state, because of the Earth's curvature, is a perfect rectangle, let alone a square; even though some of the larger western states approximate it. Some states, particularly in the east, are shaped so weirdly (but not Gruesome) as to boggle the mind. For example, Virginia has a piece of land under its jurisdiction that is attached to ...more
Aug 03, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
This useless brick is, unfortunately, one of several self-inflicted literary infections I got by whipping out my iPhone App two hours deep into a happy hour. GOOD friends don't let friends do that. I need better friends, it would seem.

This book is about as compelling and forgettable as those "Brain Quest" trivia cards, and poorly written. I gritted my teeth through the first several chapters that Professor Stein begins with "How come...?" Why not "why?" Or better still, why not acknow
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
Many would agree with Robert Frost that "good fences make good neighbors." (or with Ben Franklin who made a similar observation 200 years prior). This book is a treasure trove of why boundaries were and are important. Stein makes some general observations about the process of establishing the states and the antecedents to our nation's control over its current territory before examining almost every mile of border from each state's perspective.

It's a pleasant surprise that he makes it so interest
Mar 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014-reads, sachbuch
A nice little book with tons of interesting stories about the setting, resetting and finalizing of borders over the roughly 230 years of American History. And it delivers exactly what it says on the cover: it shows and tells how the States got their shapes.

So ultimately, the only problem that i've got with Mr Stein's presentation is that i've come to read the book through the (in my eyes more than excellent) television series of the same name, where the various conflicts, clashes of interest and
Beth Cato
Apr 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title IS a summary of the book, which is an ideal read if you're a history and geography geek like me. It's 304-pages of maps, historical notes, and outright warfare between states. I've always wondered why many East Coast states remained small; yes, they may have been colonies originally, but why not combine eventually? That question and many others are addressed. Sometimes it can get confusing because of the sheer amount of terms, but Stein set aside a special section at the front called D ...more
The other John
Aug 04, 2008 rated it liked it
Here's an intriguing book of trivia--a tome of a very specific historical niche. Have you ever looked at a state map and wondered why the border runs like it does? No? Er, well, trust me, there are weirdoes like me who love maps and sit and gaze upon all the little quirks and details. And there are some, like me, who have wondered why the heck Michigan has an upper peninsula or why Utah has that notch. Such secrets are revealed in this book, as the logic (or politics) behind each twist and turn ...more
Aug 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, geography
The information within the book - and for the most part the style in which it is written - is very good. The primary fault is the organization. There are two introductory sections, one laying out the point of the book and the other giving some important information that will be referenced in almost every state history. Then the book goes through each state's border history. The states are listed alphabetically which is handy if you only want to look up a few. If you only want to look up, for exa ...more
Oct 16, 2014 rated it liked it
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It is exactly as its title suggests. it's a book about how each state in the United States got its border. The book begins with a section called "Don't Skip This" It would have been helpful if this section included a succinct summary. The purpose of this section is to give a broad background on the formation of the geography of the United States. As I read the book, though, I kept thinking"If I knew about the French and Indian War, The Louisiana Purchase and The Mex ...more
Robert Beveridge
Mark Stein, How the States Got Their Shapes (Smithsonian Books, 2008)

A lovely little book, this, which after a brief introduction dives straight into its topic: fifty sections, each detailing the history behind the odder bits of states' shapes. It's pretty much the ultimate American geography trivia guide, in that none of this stuff will ever find a practical application in your head, but it's fascinating. The number of common borders in the US does lend itself to repetition (in fact, one large
Apr 29, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2009
This was not as good as I had hoped, though it did have some interest. My big problem was the way he arranged his information, which was with the states in alphabetical order and then dealing with each border. The alphabetical order was the big problem--you spent a fair amount of time flipping back and forth between, say, Arizona and Nevada, or Mississippi and Alabama. Or you didn't flip, and so you forgot part of the story. Just a dumb and lazy way to arrange information that could have been re ...more
Feb 08, 2017 rated it liked it

Audiobook read, but this was entertaining until it got really grating. Good for trivia, not so great for entertainment.
Scott Middleton
Apr 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
I cannot believe I read this whole thing.

Some of the explanations are interesting and may one day make for nerd cocktail chatter, but they are not worth suffering through the concluding sentence of each chapter, which is invariably in the style of "...and that's why the Florida panhandle demonstrates America's commitment to equality."
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019, history
What a curious, interesting book. I happened upon this on a friend's recommendation, and was very pleasantly surprised. Organized into 51 chapters, one for each state, plus the District of Columbia, it uses history to explain the geography of each of the states. Stein's style is light and humorous, which helps lighten a book that could suffer from dryness.

One critique I have of the book is the repetition, which may be unavoidable given the structure of the book. For example, by the time you get
Jun 01, 2017 rated it liked it
The book was informative and a quick read for a history nerd like me, but was also very repetitive. I felt like Stein could have gone more in depth with some of the quirks of borders and disputes but perhaps was saving them for future works. I only gave 3 stars because of the repetitive nature, but as far as reading and information goes I would give 4.
Jonathan Cervas
Jul 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For geography or history nerds, this book offers insightful takes on American history and how state borders came to be. It’s not as organic as one might imagine, and is marked by the number of surveyor mistakes along the way!
Rachel Cohen
Jan 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Funny and insightful. However, it got repetitive since most of the states touch and the borders are for the same reason on each side. Stein’s bibliography left a lot to be desired and was too “select” for my tastes.
Sep 08, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: unfinished
If I ever finish this, I'm probably going to need to get my hands on a print version. I'm reading a library ebook and it's annoying. There is not a copy of the map being discussed on every page, so it gets confusing. I could pull up a Google Map but that would be annoying too. I can't fully judge the book because I'm having trouble with the format. I think I probably still want to read it, but the ebook is no bueno.
Dec 27, 2013 rated it liked it
It's fine, but seems like it wasn't designed to actually be read straight through. It has a chapter on each state arranged alphabetically, which means the information is disjointed instead of being organized by either region or major occurrence that produced the states (such as the Louisiana Purchase).

That said, it's actually surprising how logical a lot of the state boundaries ended up being. In the east, a lot of it is due to where rivers create natural boundaries. This plays out elsewhere in
Jan 19, 2009 rated it liked it
My wife and I read several portions of How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein while we drove to and from Kansas over the Christmas Holidays. The book is a state-by-state description of how the 50 states, plus DC, obtained their current boundaries. The book can be rather repetitive, if you read it straight through (after all, the states all share borders, and if each chapter of the book tells the story of every boundary of one state, there has to be repitition, with the exception of maybe ...more
Sep 14, 2014 rated it liked it
Summary: A state-by-state (plus the District of Columbia) description of exactly how and why every state border came to be in its current precise location. It's not as dry a read as it sounds.

Thoughts: On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. The stories behind the state lines is fascinating (did you know that the NY/NJ state line was in dispute even up until the 1990s? I sure didn't! And poor Maryland - it contested the placement of every one of its borders, and lost every. single. time.). Ste
Jan 07, 2009 rated it liked it
Ok, if you're into interesting facts, ramdom ways to make conversation (that may not go anywhere), or just want to surprise yourself with your own level of ignorance about the actual shape of states (including the one you live in) then this is the book for you.

If, however, despite all that is written above you find repetitveness, poor organization, and failed attempts at grandiose statements and/or humor, perhaps you should pass. This was a pretty poorly written book. It was organized alphabeti
Todd N
Sep 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
My parents live near Toledo, Ohio, and one of the streets near their house is called "Old State Line Road." After reading this book, I understand the significance of this street's name and how it is related to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. As a bonus, I learned that a large part of northern Ohio was claimed by Connecticut.

This book takes an interesting approach to U.S. history by explaining why the states have the shapes that they do. I never really had a reason to question why the states are shap
Adrian Rush
Aug 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Well, I went into this book hoping to find out why the states' borders have some of the funny twists and turns they do. And as far as that goes, it lived up to my expectations.

This kind of stuff fascinates me. Pretty much anything to do with American history commands my attention. And sure enough, everything you could want to know about the states and how they got carved out is all in here. The drawing of the Mason-Dixon line ... attitudes toward future states post-Revolution ... surveying mist
Apr 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is the first pop-geography book I’ve come across, and while many of the state-shaping forces described here are somewhat intuitive (e.g. existing colonial borders, geographical boundaries, access to natural resources, slavery), I was surprised by the extent to which borders were contorted, and remain contorted to this day, to prevent islands of lawlessness or to enforce class and religious separation. Apparently, farmers don’t get along with gold miners, and just about everyone wants to kee ...more
Jan 21, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Yofish by: Inside Smithsonian Research
Shelves: read-nonfiction
Pretty much what the title says. He goes through the 50 states, in order, and describes why their borders are where they are. (Even Alaska and Hawaii.) That means there's lots of repeating, and lots of "to see more, turn to [other state]' But that's OK. Not real great for just reading straight through. Some good stuff. Surprising how late some of these disputes went on.

And how much was decided by somewhat random chance. Like someone screwed up the survey. Or someone read the royal decree wrong.
Mar 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Exactly what it says on the tin. The book is divided into little chapters for each state, and goes over every border individually. There's also a prologue of sorts (called, helpfully and aptly "DON'T SKIP THIS") that explains the events that shaped borders in multiple states (the famous Mason-Dixon line, for example). The individual state profiles make it easy to skip to just one state, if you're only interested in, say, your home state. But it's certainly not dry enough to make reading it all i ...more
Jeff Elliott
Aug 13, 2015 rated it it was ok
"Just the facts, Mam!" That's about all that can be said about this book. Without the maps this would be one of the most boring, hard to read books I have ever encountered. With the maps it is at least understandable. Without a degree in geography, latitude and longitude, the average reader would find this a difficult read. We should also state that some states borders are just more boring than others. Can you hear me, Wyoming? The show put on by the History Channel on this topic did an excellen ...more
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“In reality, France's American territory extended to the west as far as a Frenchman could go without getting shot by a Spaniard, and likewise to the north without getting shot by an Englishman.” 3 likes
“The origin of Georgia's southern border is simpler than that of it's northern border. And bloodier” 1 likes
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