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1920s New York City from the Sky

With the first liftoff of Orville and Wilbur Wright into the sky in 1903, the world dramatically changed in an instant, and it did not take long for the implications of flight to be applied to the world of cartography. The value of aerial mapping became readily apparent with the advent of World War I. However, it was also soon discovered that traditional cameras, with their slow shutter speeds, were not equipped to handle taking photographs from a moving airplane.

After being rejected from the military due to poor health, Sherman M. Fairchild was determined to help the war effort in another way, through his passion for photography. Fairchild developed a camera with a between-the-lens shutter which produced much clearer images when used from an airplane. To continue to produce his cameras, in February 1920 he started the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation. From this beginning, Fairchild went on to found over 70 companies, introducing significant advancements in aviation, photography, aerial mapping, and eventually mapping the moon.

A large sepia toned map pieced together by assembling 100 aerial photographs of Manhattan and the Bronx.

Aerial survey, Manhattan Island, New York City. Map by Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation, 1921. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Detail of Fairchild map showing Polo Grounds, 1921.

Interested in pioneering aerial mapping, in 1921 Fairchild formed Fairchild Aerial Surveys. He took two aerial maps that same year, the first of Newark, New Jersey and the second of Manhattan Island, New York, seen above, the first aerial maps of a large city. Made using a biplane, this map was made on August 4, 1921 assembled using 100 aerial photographs taken at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Detail of Fairchild map showing Penn Station, 1921.

The map shows a glimpse of New York City before the explosion of skyscrapers that was to take over the city only a few years later. A close examination of the map reveals fascinating details including buildings, trees, cars, parks, and more.

One eye catching structure, the Polo Grounds can be seen in upper Manhattan near the Harlem River. With its distinct shape, this was the site of the 1921 World Series, played by intercity rivals, the New York Giants and the New York Yankees.

Another interesting building to note is the original Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, completed only 11 years earlier in 1911, allowing train travel to the city from the south for the first time. The ornate building was torn down in 1963 and replaced by Madison Square Garden.

Aerial mapping continued to advance up to the satellite mapping available today. The ability to see a city or the world from the sky, starting with this map of New York City, altered the way humanity perceived their sense of place in the world forever.

Black and white photo of New York City, above the clouds.

[Aerial view of New York City]. Photo by Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc., 1934. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

New Fire Insurance Map Research Guide Available

The most heavily used collection in the Geography and Map Division are the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, a collection of large-scale, building level maps, dating from 1867 to the present which depict the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some 12,000 cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Sanborn collection includes about […]

Mapping A World Of Cities

Sponsored by the Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library and the MacLean Collection Map Library in Chicago, IL, the Library of Congress is pleased to announce its participation entitled Mapping A World of Cities in a joint project with the American Geographical Society (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), the David Rumsey Map Center (Stanford Libraries, California), […]

Canals of Washington, DC

Washington, D.C., was established as the “permanent seat of the Federal Government” by the passage of the Residence Act in 1790. This act allowed President George Washington to select the site for the new city anywhere along the banks of the Potomac River between its junction with the Shenandoah River, near present day Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and its junction with the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River, just below the current location of Washington, DC.

The area demarcated for the new city was a blank slate and President Washington selected Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to create a design for it. The map below, published in 1794, reflects L’Enfant’s vision for the new city with a few improvements attributed to Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820).

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading along from the Potomac River, down the format location of Tiber Creek, to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading from the Potomac River, down the former location of Tiber Creek (see below), to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

The detail below shows the Potomac River, the mouth of Tiber Creek, and the United States Mall as laid out by L’Enfant and Ellicott. Running along the  Mall, as we know it today, was a creek that led westward from roughly the current site of Union Station to the Tidal Basin and, ultimately, to the Potomac River. What many Washingtonians may not realize is that both L’Enfant’s original design, and Ellicott’s improvement incorporated canals to facilitate the shipment of goods and construction materials to build the new city.

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L'Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791]. Geography and Map Division.Map

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L’Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791] Geography and Map Division.

In addition to the canal running past the White House, there were grand plans for a university on the west end of the Mall and a turning basin for the canal at the base of Capitol Hill. The proposed University resembles the original campus of the University of Virginia!

 District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

 

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup't of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup’t of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division. In addition to the Washington Canal, the topography of Capitol Hill, also known as Jenkins Hill, can be seen running from north to south through the center of the map.

So why the canal?  It was simply a time saving measure.  The sandstone blocks that were used in Read more »

Solving a Burning Question

While browsing through our digital map collections, I came across a map that forced me to stop and take a closer look. Titled Fire chart of the Borough of Manhattan, N.Y…, it was published in 1915 and shows the number of reported fires in Manhattan, block by block, for the years 1910, 1911, and 1912. […]

The Los Angeles Oil Boom Through Maps

Los Angeles is world famous for its sunny beaches and Hollywood glamour, but did you know that the California metropolis has a long history as a booming oil city? At both large and small scales, maps help tell the stories of this often forgotten part of the Los Angeles’s past and present. The first commercially […]