Streets of the City
Barely 200 years ago, most of our nation’s cities weren’t even on the map – because they didn’t exist!
In contrast, the Old World cities of Europe have changed so little during that time that today’s travelers could find their way around London, Paris, or Moscow with a map form the 1700s, but that is not the case here in North America.
The recent development of our cites out of the primeval wilderness mirrors our country’s dynamic history and adds a whole new dimension to the enjoyable hobby of map collecting.
Maps of the larger east coast cities began to appear in atlases around the time of the Revolution and were a regular feature by the mid-19th century. Even a casual observer would be struck by how “orderly” the street plan of many American cities appeared – in contrast to the “haphazard” layout of cities across the Atlantic. History favored us in that one respect at least; our early urban planners took pains to lay out our cities and an organized way. There are countless examples, among cities large and small: New York; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Salt Lake City; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Casper, Wyoming; and Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Even Boston, one of our oldest cites, and a city which does have some twisty streets, shows this evolutionary process. A city plan from an atlas published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in London shows the Massachusetts in the 1830s and locates streets, wharves and public buildings. The area today known as the Back Bay is part of the Charles River estuary on the map. But 30 years later Samuel Augustus Mitchell, Jr., of Philadelphia, published a map of Boston showing the Back Bay filed in – in an organized, grid-like style. In characteristic Mitchell style, the map is hand colored and graced with a grapevine border.
Smaller towns came into their own during the late 1800s when publishers started putting out county atlases, typically showing these towns and villages in large enough scale to provide detail on individual residences and local businesses. Today, these maps are not only interesting in their own right as collectibles, they are also of inestimable use to the historian and those doing genealogical research.
Besides the atlas makers, other publishers have been quick to satisfy the public’s appetite for urban plans. Sometimes these maps were an advertising giveaway. Private businesses would publish a map to promote their product or service, and chambers of commerce early discovered the benefit of using a map to promote the scenic and economic attractions of their cities and towns.
Oil companies and auto clubs also issued city maps – and distributed them for free to motorists.
There are many ways to enjoy collecting city maps. You can focus on a particular city and see how many different maps you can get, from early days up to the present. Notice how the city has evolved over the years and observe how different map makers chose to include or exclude various features. Compare map makers graphic techniques as well as their cartographic styles, and you may learn a great deal about the art and science of cartography.
If your chosen city is a large one with a long history, you may have hundreds, or even thousands, of different maps to chose from, in a wide range of prices. But if you choose a small city or town, your challenge will be more in finding any maps at all. For recent maps of towns too small to merit coverage by Rand McNally, Champion, and other commercial map makers, local chambers of commerce may be able to help. (Not to mention, our very own eBay store.) Often a written request is all it takes to get a map of a particular town for free from a chamber of commerce. Sometimes there is a nominal fee. In either case, it is a good beginning. For older maps, you should try flea markets, garage sales or thrift shops, as well as dealers in antique and collectible maps. There may be a fair bit of legwork involved because there are actually only a few dealers with a large enough inventory and a willingness to help you find a 1950 map of Orlando, Florida, or a 1980 map of Casper, Wyoming. This may change as more collectors discover the appeal and value of maps – and generate more demand for them.
A second way to enjoy collecting city maps is to collect one map from each city in a given state or region.
A third way is to limit yourself to maps of a certain period. Maps of the late 18th and early 19th century have an incredible charm and a significant historical value; they can also be very hard to find and even harder to afford. Maps of the mid to late 19th century, many of which were originally bound in atlases, will be easier to locate; they are also affordable and can easily be framed to make an attractive and interesting wall piece.
In the 20th century the paper folding map came into its own. Designed to be a size that would conveniently fit into a motorist’s car glove compartment, the approximate 4” x 9” format is now almost an industry standard. Often printed on two sides, these folded maps will often include pictures and text to complement the map itself.
The collection of city maps can be enjoyed on a modest budget, although some of the early examples can cost many hundreds of dollars.
I’m always happy to answer your questions on city maps or any other aspect of map collecting.