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Al Larson and Fred Willman

The theme of place holds a special position in the five-themes-of-geography model. It is here that the geographer and historian encounters the seemingly innumerable physical and cultural phenomena of the earth. Because it is the explicit purpose of place to identify phenomena and provide a structure for their organization, one is hesitant to extend the use of place beyond that point. Nonetheless, examples of human encounters with the physical and cultural factors that make up the reality of Illinois may serve to better illustrate the substance of place. Place is conveniently divided into two major parts physical elements of place and human elements of place. We are indebted to the late Professor Preston James, whose structure (slightly modified) has been used with success, and which is presented here. It might be argued that this is a false division, since human beings themselves are part of the physical world. Still, it is useful to have a structure with which to classify those things that can be studied geographically. While any classification may be more or less useful depending upon one's perception, the following generally has been found to be a workable framework into which to class the physical and the human (cultural) phenomena, setting the stage on which the themes of human-environment interaction, movement, and regions will be acted out.



Illinois is affected by two major types of climate Humid Continental in the northern three-fourths and Humid Subtropical in the southern one-fourth. More specifically, the larger northern portion has a coldest month average of below 32° F, a warmest month above 71.6° F, and it receives precipitation throughout the year. The southern portion of the state has a coldest-month temperature above 32° F but below 64.4° F, a warmest month above 71.6° F, and precipitation throughout the year. Settlers in those two regions of the state reacted in various ways to the differences. One reaction is evident today in their contrasting house types, reflecting the climatic differences of the northern and southern portions of the state. Larger homes with fewer porches are found in the north, where two-and-one-half stories are common. In the southern portion, one-and-one-half story houses are common,

Place: Physical and Human Characteristic

All places on the earth have distinctive tangible and intangible characteristics that give them meaning and character and distinguish them from other places. Geographers generally describe places by their physical or human characteristics.


Physical characteristics derive from the geological, hydrological, atmospheric, and biological processes that produce landforms, water bodies, climate, soils, natural vegetation, and animal life.

Human Characteristics.
Human ideas and actions shape the character of places. Places vary in their population composition, as well as in their settlement patterns, architecture, kinds of economic and recreational activities, and transportation and communication networks. One place also can be distinguished from another by the ideologies and philosophical or religious tenets of people who live there, their languages, and by their forms of economic, social, and political organization.


Few places on earth have been untouched by the human contact, even sparsely settled or largely uninhabited areas such as the ice sheets of Antarctica, the Grand Canyon of Arizona, and the seemingly impenetrable tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin. All have landscapes shaped in part by human activity.


often with a porch or veranda that helped promote an "outdoor living" style. Such cultural variations accompanied the settlers who migrated westward from areas of similar climatic contrast to the east. That more "outdoor living" in the Upper South than in the colder conditions of New England is evident in Illinois' houses where migrants from those two areas built their homes. These contrasts remain plentifully evident despite modern climate-controlled houses.


Illinois is part of the North American landform region known as the Central Lowland. All but three small areas of the state have been glaciated. Thus, most of the state has a veneer of glacially deposited materials left by the invading ice. Outcrops of the underlying sedimentary rocks are found in various places, including roadcuts and quarries. But overall, Illinois is a rather level to gently rolling state.


Illinois' continental location, far from the ameliorating effects of ocean currents, is not as affected by them as places nearer the coasts. Nonetheless, the state's major source of humidity and resultant precipitation for the state is the Gulf of Mexico. A more local situation (but also one that is universal) is the Hydrologic Cycle, a never-ending circulation of water from evaporation to condensation to precipitation. The amount of water available at any place is a strong controlling factor.

Illinois is generally considered "well-watered," meaning there is usually ample moisture for non-irrigated agriculture typical of our middle latitude location. The surface waters of the state are dominated by Lake Michigan in the northeast, with its limited drainage basin originally flowing into the St. Lawrence River, and the extensive "tree-branch" style dendritic drainage generally southwestward into the Mississippi River system. The low divide between branches of the two systems made portaging relatively easy (three miles in the spring and early summer rainy season and ten to twelve miles the rest of the year) and later construction of a canal with minimal excavation. That all-water, level route connecting the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico stimulated the state's growth and economy.


While Illinois' original inhabitants were descendants of Asian immigrants, they have been largely displaced by Euro-Americans and recent Latin American and Asian immigrants. At the time of the Euro-American invasion, much of the state was covered by tall-grass prairie with isolated groves and fingers of tree lines that followed the water courses. The state today has precious little natural vegetation or fauna; most of it has been replaced by domesticated plants and animals.

Early Euro-American settlers regarded the prairie with suspicion. A widely held notion of the time was that if trees would not grow, crops would not grow. Additionally, the lack of trees was seen as a detriment, increasing vulnerability to possible attack by Native Americans and to the Arctic blasts of cold winter winds and snow. Further, the tough prairie sod was nearly resistant to plows. Indeed the earliest British settlers had no word for this sort of tall-grass environment. Great Britain had places without trees, but they did not support agriculture barrens and meadows, for example. The exceptionally fertile tall-grass lands in Illinois were none of those. Eventually, the term "prairie" was adopted from the French. It would take many years before the full potential of the state's soil and the meaning of its tall grass would be realized. Likewise, many years would pass before a suitable plow would provide the technology enabling farmers to take advantage of the state's inherent physical wealth.

Human (Cultural) Elements

Human beings have increasingly shaped the physical earth to suit their economic necessities and lifestyles. How that is accomplished is included in the concept of culture. Culture is learned behavior and can conveniently be defined as human attitudes, objectives, and technological skills.

Material Culture

Material culture includes tools and technical skills and the great variety of things that are consequently produced by them. This includes domesticated plants and animals whose appearance is so commonplace that humans are likely to think of them as physical, forgetting the major changes brought about through bio-genetic engineering by humans. Often subtle to the human eye and mind, these changes nonetheless provide the landscape with much of its present-day character.


The domesticated grass generally known as corn (maize) is widespread over Illinois, and it dominates the crops in many counties. Maize was introduced to much of the present United States from southern Mexico by the time of European settlement. Its many hybrids may be said to derive from the introduction of the Virginia Gourd seed variety by Robert Reid of Virginia, who settled near present Pekin, Illinois. Unused to the midwestern climate, the early planting of his native variety was, he felt, in danger of being killed by a later spring frost. To avoid a total loss, Reid planted the hardy Indian Flint corn in the same field. By accident, the two varieties crossed and produced the original ancestor of today's field corn, Reid's Yellow Dent, so-named because of the dent in the end of each kernel. Field corn, used industrially but especially for animal feed, presently makes up over 90% of the corn grown in the state.

Economic systems are also included under the heading material culture. The hunting and gathering life of the original Native American inhabitants of Illinois has been superseded by a capitalist economic system that today includes the agricultural and industrial mix so familiar to the present scene. The state is also following present-day national practices in that tertiary economic activities (such as retailing, wholesaling, services, and professions) dominate the state's working population.

Social Institutions

Human societies organize themselves in many ways. To some extent, Americans (including Illinoisans) recognize wealth and the material things that wealth can buy as an indication of social standing or organization. Perhaps this is a natural outgrowth of the capitalist economic system. Other major institutions in human organization include education, government, and political groups. These organized institutions in Illinois include state, county, township, and local governments and a system of both public and private educational institutions. We can add to that the seemingly endless number of organizations, both public and private, that constitute the social organization of a culture.

Capitol in Springfield

Among the most common architectural structures representing American government are state capitals and county courthouses. In addition to the state capital in Springfield, each of the state's 102 counties has such a building or complex of buildings that can be interpreted both in functional and symbolic ways. All of the state's citizens are accounted for in these buildings where vital statistics, land ownership documents, and many other records are kept. Additionally, the symbolic order, strength, and justice of government is represented by the choice of architectural elements that reflect those characteristics. However, just as styles of housing and business structures change, so too do the chosen modes for governmental buildings. For example, although formal Greek and Roman styles were popular in the period from the 1890s until the 1930s, courthouse and business architecture have embraced the more functional styles of modern architecture, especially since 1950. This represents a change in American values, with those elements of past grandeur and symbolism giving way to businesslike buildings with little or no historical recollection. Apparently American values have been dominated by wealth and business, even as reflected by the architecture of government.

Attitude toward the Unknown

Included under this heading are magic, religion, and science. Religion is a cultural universal. People have always been curious about their place in the universe. Numerous belief systems and associated rituals have emerged in response to unexplained mysteries of existence, such as the meaning of being and the possibility of life after death. Illinois as well as the United States is largely a Christian region, although there are large minorities with other religious belief systems. In another important sense, this state and country might be classified as secular. Most Americans have faith that science can explain the mysteries of the unknown. Because of the separation of church and state, Americans have the right to not only be a member of a religious belief system, but at the same time maintain a belief in scientific explanations that provide alternative explanations to those of religion.

Illinois religious regions generally follow the patterns as represented by ethnicity and migrations, resulting in a wide array of religions in the state. There is also a strong feeling in the entire country that suggests that "Americanism" has taken on religionlike status, resulting in a weakening of organized religions.



The distinction of what may be called art versus material culture is often debated, but generally it is decided on the basis of individual subjective measure. Those cultural items classified as art are graphic arts (painting, literature), plastic arts (sculpture, architecture), folklore, music, drama, and the dance. All are widely represented in Illinois and provide its citizens with many entertaining diversions as well as means of expressing our dynamic culture in its many manifestations.


The best map of cultures is that of language. It is the cement of culture. Since culture is learned behavior, it is language, with all of its meanings and subtle nuances, that makes culture possible. Perhaps that is why, despite the fact that modern communication brings us closer together, the worldwide number of languages has not diminished. However, at present, certain languages, notably English, are taking on greater worldwide importance. The United States is nominally an English-speaking country, although there is no official language. Illinois functions generally through the use of English, although many other languages are heard and read throughout the state, most notably in urban centers where non-English-speaking immigrants are in the process of acculturation into American culture. Most Native Americans of Illinois spoke languages in the Algonquian family. Today's citizens generally speak languages of the Indo-European linguistic family. Most of the state has been classified as speaking a Midland speech dialect, with Northern and Highland Southern speech patterns concentrated at the extreme north and south ends of the state.

The geographic stage may be said to be set with the enumeration and identification of the physical and human or cultural elements of the earth. These elements and their interaction account for the landscape appearance of the United States and Illinois. Set in motion, the human perception of the physical stage that is Illinois results in our own landscapes and cityscapes. The resultant processes and patterns are explained in the remaining three themes: Human-Environmental Interaction, Movement, and Regions.

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