Panoramic maps

The Old House Web
Gardiner, Maine, 1878
Gardiner, Maine, 1878


By Kendall Holmes
The Old House Web

Think for just a moment about the old-house neighborhood you know the most intimately - and now imagine what it might have looked like at a much earlier time in its history.

Got an image? Great!

In just a minute, I'll take you to one of the most fascinating collections of artwork I've ever had the pleasure of stumbling across in five-plus years of serious Web surfing.

Today's destination: The Library of Congress's collection of more than 1,500 panoramic city and town maps. And with only a bit of luck, you'll be able to find a highly detailed sketch of your hometown - perhaps even your house and your neighborhood -- within the collection.

Georgetown, D.C., 1855
Georgetown, D.C., 1855

The maps you'll be looking at were largely created between 1850 and 1920 - with a majority dating between 1870 and 1900. Known also as bird's-eye views, perspective maps, and aero views, panoramic maps are artists' representations of cities portrayed as if viewed from above.

They show street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective.

Ready to go? Start here by choosing a state, then a town or city. Once you find a map that interests you, click on it -- and follow the instructions on the screens that appear next. You'll be able to zoom in to a level of detail that shows individual houses.

Later, please feel free to stop back to this page to learn more about the history of these fascinating maps, and the people who created them.

Happy viewing!

Background about these maps

The following background information about the Library of Congress's maps isadapted from the Library's own notes about its collection:

The work of five artists -- Albert Ruger, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, Lucien R. Burleigh, Henry Wellge, and Oakley H. Bailey -- dominate the Library of Congress's collection. These five artists prepared more than 55 percent of the panoramic maps in the Library of Congress.

The tradition of perspective mapping flowered in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The perspective was usually at a low oblique angle, and streets were seldom identified by name.

A modified version of the Renaissance city view was employed in the United States before the Civil War. Like their European predecessors, these perspectives, usually of large cities, were drawn at low angles and at times even at ground level. Street patterns were often indistinct.

Preparation of these pre-Civil War maps involved a vast amount of painstakingly detailed labor. For each project, a frame or projection was developed, showing in perspective the pattern of streets.

The artist then walked in the street -- sketching buildings, trees, and other features to present a complete and accurate landscape as though seen from an elevation of 2,000 to 3,000 feet. These drawings were entered on the frame in the artist's workroom.

After the Civil War, a new type of panorama emerged.

These post-Civil War town views are more accurate and are drawn from a higher angle.

Small towns as well as major urban centers were portrayed. Panoramic mapping of urban centers was unique to North America in this era.

Preparation and sale of nineteenth-century panoramas were motivated by civic pride and the desire of the city fathers to encourage commercial growth. Many views were prepared for and endorsed by chambers of commerce and other civic organizations and were used as advertisements of a city's commercial and residential potential.

Panoramic maps not only showed the existing city but sometimes also depicted areas planned for development. Real estate agents and chambers of commerce used the maps to promote sales to prospective buyers of homes and business properties.

Henry Wellge's 1892 panorama of Norfolk, Virginia, for example, was distributed with the compliments of Pollard Brothers Real Estate, and Thaddeus M. Fowler's 1893 view of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was commissioned by realtor William G. Howell.

Panoramic maps graphically depict the vibrant life of a city.

Harbors are shown choked with ships, often to the extent of constituting hazards to navigation. Trains speed along railroad tracks, at times on the same roadbed with locomotives and cars headed in the opposite direction. People and horsedrawn carriages fill the streets, and smoke belches from the stacks of industrial plants. Urban and industrial development in post-Civil War America is vividly portrayed in the maps.

Advances in lithography, photolithography, photoengraving, and chromolithography, which made possible inexpensive and multiple copies, along with prosperous communities willing to purchase prints, made panoramic maps popular wall hangings during America's Victorian Age. The citizen could view with pride his immediate environment and point out his own property to guests, since the map artist, for a suitable fee, obligingly included illustrations of private homes as insets to the main city plan.

As late as the 1920s, panoramic maps were still in vogue commercially.

Although the separate print was the most common panoramic map format, views of citiesand towns also appeared as illustrations in nineteenth-century state and county atlases.Credit was often not given to the artist in such publications, but some of the leadingpanoramic map artists probably prepared views for these atlases. Ruger, for example,prepared a landscape view for the title page of E. L. Hayes's 1877 atlas of the upper OhioRiver and Valley. The town views in Andreas's 1875 Iowa atlas, although unsigned, alsoresemble Ruger's work.

The Library's collection includes the largest panoramic map published, Camille N. Dry's1875 Pictorial St. Louis; The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, which wasdedicated to the famous Mississippi River bridgebuilder Capt. James B. Eads. It wasproduced on 110 plates, which when trimmed and assembled created a panorama of the citymeasuring about 9 by 24 feet. Dry issued the panoramic map in an atlas, the preface ofwhich included the following notes regarding its preparation:

"A careful perspective, which required a surface of three hundred square feet, was then erected from a correct survey of the city, extending northward from Arsenal Island to the Water Works, a distance of about ten miles, on the river front; and from the Insane Asylum on the southwest to the Cemeteries on the northwest. Every foot of the vast territory within these limits has been carefully examined and topographically drawn in perspective . . . and the faithfulness and accuracy with which this work has been done an examination of the pages will attest."

The St. Louis panorama evidently was prepared to show the city's progress at the UnitedStates Centennial celebration of 1876. The verso of each plate contains information onvarious aspects of St. Louis economic life, including businesses, professions, schools,churches, and governmental organizations.

Every building in the area was drawn on the map, and 1,999 specific sites wereidentified by name. A note in the preface requests that any mistakes detected be lookedupon with a lenient eye by an indulgent public "in view of the magnitude of the work,the originality of the idea, and the difficulties encountered in carrying it out."Dry's map of St. Louis is a magnificent extension of the normal single-sheet lithographicview and one of the crowning achievements of the art. Also impressive for their size anddetail are the colored view of Washington (1883-84), which measures 4 by 5.5 feet, andthat of Baltimore (1869), measuring 5 x 11 feet, both published by the Sachses ofBaltimore.

Surviving panoramic maps are very popular today and command premium prices from map andprint dealers. Facsimile reproductions of panoramic maps are likewise in demand. HistoricUrban Plans of Ithaca, New York, has published more than one hundred facsimiles of low andhigh oblique angle views of American cities.

Panoramic maps give a pictorial record of Anglo-America's cities during the post-CivilWar period and for many localities provide the sole nineteenth-century map.

No other graphic form of this era so effectively captured the vitality of America'surban centers

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