Zooming in On Panoramic Maps

This is a guest post by Isabelle Haines, an intern in the Young Readers Center. She is currently  studying math and English at Tulane University.

Panoramic maps rose to popularity in the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The maps showed American cities and towns from above, long before satellite images were invented. Every inch of a panoramic map brims with life – the roads are overrun with buggies, trolleys, and automobiles, the waters are swarming with boats, and people-shaped specks populate parks and streets. The natural world also has a strong presence in these maps – if you look closely, you can sometimes pick out the shadows of overhanging clouds and individual leaves on trees. Panoramic maps also reveal the history of our homes – the map below shows Seattle, my home citydecades before the Space Needle was built or the first Starbucks opened. 

Detail from Bird’s Eye View of the City of Seattle, W.T., 1884, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

In order to enrich their maps with detailpanoramic cartographers spent time studying cities and towns from the vantage point of nearby hills as well as from the street level. In general, panoramic cartographers were not concerned with spatial accuracy – their maps were almost never drawn to scale. 

The magic trick of a panoramic map is its ability to show detail at a distance. Take a look at one below. Invite the child(ren) in your lives to take a look as well as you discuss what you see. Click on the link below the map and make sure you zoom in on the map to discover all the smaller details! 

Bird’s Eye View of the City of Seattle, W.T. 1884, Geography and Map Division

Consider these questions together: 

  • What do you notice first?
  • What details did you see upon a closer look? What’s in the water? What do you see on the streets?
  • Does the map have a key or legend? If so, what information can you find out from it?
  • Why do you think this map was created this way? How was it made? Is it accurate?
  • What questions do you have after spending several minutes with the map?   

During the height of panoramic maps’ popularity, aerial photography was just emerging as an art form. The first aerial photos were taken in 1858 by the French photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon from the basket of a hot air balloon. It didn’t take long for other photographers to follow in his footsteps, attaching their cameras to kites and balloons. The German photographer Julius Neubronner even strapped his camera to carrier pigeons See, for example, this aerial view of Paris from 1878. 

While photographers were dreaming up improbable ways to get aerial shots of cities, panoramic maps remained popular and artistic alternative. Many of the maps show more than just town from 2,000 or so feet in the air - they also represent the culture and industries of a region at a given time. Check out this map of Olympia, Washington, which was drawn by the cartographer Edward Lange in 1903:

At the time that Edward Lange drew this map, west coast cities like Seattle and Olympia were growing rapidly. Newspapers and real estate developers in the Pacific Northwest often used panoramic maps to show off their cities and attract potential newcomers, so these maps were often conceived as stunning, elaborate sales pitches. More than that, they were beacons of local pride.   

Details from Olympia, the capital on Puget Sound, Washington, 1903, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress 

Today, we can use panoramic maps not only as historical documents, but also to learn trivia and play I-spy! For example, can you find the trolley cars in Edward Lange’s map of Olympia? What about Odd Fellow’s Hall? Can you figure out the height of Mount Rainier? Challenge each other with your own I-spy prompts! 

Or perhaps you want to express your own local pride. To make a panoramic map of your neighborhood or your block, follow these steps: 

  1. Walk around your neighborhood to get inspiration. Think about what places, people, animals, or things you want to include in your map and create quick sketches. If you have a camera, you can take pictures of landmarks that are important to you.  
  2. Start drawing streets and buildings. You can use the Geography and Map Division’s Panoramic Maps collection as well as programs like Google Earth as references 
  3. Let your map come alive! Add the people, animals, and plants that live in your neighborhood to your map 
  4. Remember – your map does not need to be completely accurate. Panoramic maps are special because of their vitality, attention to detail, and creativityLet your imagination lead you! 

Works Cited:

  • Crooks, Drew W., and Bill Alley. “Searching for Edward Lange: An Early Artist of Washington  State.” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, vol. 95, no. 4, 2004, pp. 216–217. 
  • Hébert, John R., and Patrick E. Dempsey. “Panoramic Mapping.” Library of Congress 
  • Waxman, Olivia B. “Aerial Photography’s Surprising Role in History.” Time, 31 May  2018. 

3 Comments

  1. Heidi Ziemer
    February 17, 2021 at 11:12 am

    Nice job Sasha!

    That was a great summary of the background and structure of panoramas! I am always struck by the lack of telephone poles and wires in these images – we see so many today, we hardly even notice them until we don’t see them in a somewhat familiar setting!

  2. Amy C
    February 17, 2021 at 11:22 am

    I love maps, especially these old panoramic ones. Thanks for the classroom use suggestions.

  3. Sasha Dowdy
    February 17, 2021 at 11:30 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Heidi! The writing credit goes to our intern Isabelle. I agree that she did a great job.

    I have never thought about the missing telephone poles and wires in the images. It would be fun to think about what else is missing! Airports, malls?

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