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.

Genuine original color lithographed 1920 fold-out map of Geneva, Switzerland, printed more than 97 years ago.

Genuine original color lithographed 1920 fold-out map of Geneva, Switzerland, printed more than 97 years ago.

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.

Original 1918 Map BROOKLYN New York City Streetcar Ferry Railroad Lines Bridges

Original 1895 antique color lithographed street plan of San Francisco, printed more than 120 years ago.

(Left) Original 1918 Map BROOKLYN New York City Streetcar Ferry Railroad Lines Bridges

(Right) Original 1895 antique color lithographed street plan of San Francisco, printed more than 120 years ago.

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.