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Getting A Bird’s Eye View

This is a guest post by Robert Morris, Acquisitions Specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

The Geography and Map Division’s (G&M) collection of panoramic maps portray U.S. and Canadian cities and towns as if viewed from a few thousand feet above at an oblique angle. Bird’s-eye views, perspective maps, and aerial views are other names associated with this type of cartography. While not drawn to scale, they do show street patterns, buildings, waterways, and the surrounding landscape. G&M’s collection dates largely from the post-Civil War period through the 1920s.

Bird's eye view map in color that shows buildings, bridges, and many ships around Norfolk, Virginia.

Bird’s eye view of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Berkley, Norfolk Co., Va. Augustus Koch, 1891. Geography and Map Division.

Their artistic beauty has long made them one of the most reproduced types of maps from the Geography and Map Division collections. This was true even before the roughly 2,000 items in the collection were scanned and placed on the Library of Congress website in the Panoramic Maps Digital Collection.

That said, it is somewhat ironic that some 60 years ago there was a spirited debate in G&M on whether this cartographic form should even be considered a map and collected. Thankfully, the resolution was that if the views were at an oblique angle high enough to show the street plan, they were maps, which kept most of the collection intact in G&M.

These panoramic maps were usually independently published, often employing itinerant artists that began the painstaking process by sketching the layout of the town from a nearby hilltop and by walking the streets, sketching the buildings. The publishers/artists generally would approach the town’s chamber of commerce or city fathers to provide initial funding for printing. These groups understood such town views would foster commercial development, residential growth, and civic pride. These views provide a pictorial record of the vitality of cities and towns across America during the post-Civil War era. Note the high level of economic activity portrayed, including two trains steaming rapidly towards one other on a single railroad track, in this bird’s-eye view of Mystic, Connecticut!

Birds eye view map of Mystic Connecticut with a river running through the center of town, connected by a drawbridge.

A detail of the Mystic map that shows two trains about to collide on the same track.

View of Mystic River & Mystic Bridge, Conn. O.H. Bailey, 1879. Geography and Map Division.

Promoting economic development in the towns rendered was one of the reasons for the success of these views in the 19th century. Interestingly, in the 21st century a new cottage industry of selling reprints of these maps that can be downloaded from the Library’s website has developed on various internet websites.

A small river runs through the town of Jamestown New York with straight streets in this bird's eye view.

Birds eye view of the city of Jamestown, Chautauqua County, New York, looking north west. Publisher unknown, 1871. Geography and Map Division.

The Geography and Map Division’s panoramic maps collection is large, but it is not comprehensive. The map above is a fine example of a recently acquired bird’s-eye view of Jamestown, New York from 1879, not previously held by G&M in any form. Zoom in to see a baseball diamond with a game in action near the river in the center of the map!

Each year G&M seeks out and manages to locate and acquire additional original bird’s-eye views to further strengthen our holdings, often with information provided from fellow LC staff and patrons.

Map with red buildings standing out from green landscape with mountains in the background.

Detail of Los Angeles, California. Semi-Tropic Homestead Co., 1894. G&M.

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2 Comments

  1. John
    March 31, 2021 at 9:34 am

    Very interesting to understand how parallel cities were built from scratch to help seeing through this bird’s eye view state of mind. Beautifully constructed towns !

  2. Tom Paper
    March 31, 2021 at 11:05 pm

    Love these panoramic maps. I’ve put together an exhibit for each state using these images. You can see Minnesota exhibit at https://www.thedigitalgallery.org/exhibits/66 and you can see the rest of the states from the search bar at http://www.thedigitalgallery.org. My sincere thanks to the Library of Congress for this collection. Tom Paper

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