I wish we had city maps like the “bird’s eye” views produced in abundance in the second half of the nineteenth century today, but I suppose Google maps have taken their place. Digital maps are not substitutes for the first generation of these maps, however, which give us a unique perspective on urban landscapes of the era, a block-by-block, house-by-house, humanistic view that not even photography provides. I suppose I like them so much because they remind me of the city maps of the sixteenth century, my period: the civic pride, the belief in progress through construction, the people are so conspicuous in maps of both eras. To illustrate my point, let’s look at two maps, produced centuries apart: a map of the German city of Nuremberg from Georg Braun & Franz Hogenberg’s multi-volume Civitas Orbis Terrarum dated 1575, and a map of Salem that I happen to own, John Bachelder’s southern perspective of the city, published by Endicott & Company of New York City in 1856.
There are several differences in these perspectives (color, water, iconography, dress) but there are also, I think, some striking similarities, the most important of which is the central placement of the citizens of these cities. The message seems to be: the people are the city, not just the magnificent buildings or the busy harbor. Very democratic, in both the sixteenth century and the nineteenth century. Google maps don’t place people front and center; people aren’t even in Google maps.
John Bachelder, a New England native and an artist, lithographer, and photographer as well as a cartographer, published several other views of Salem, as well as many other cities, before he went on to distinguish himself as a “battlefield cartographer” and more: documenting in minute detail some of the major battles of the Civil War, most notably Gettysburg. But I think that his eye for detail is present in is antebellum city maps as well, many of which are at the Library of Congress. Below is his western perspective of Salem, also published by Endicott & Company–a bit further back, more of a traditional panoramic view featuring more landscape than people, yet the people are still present.
As impressive an artist as Bachelder was, my very favorite Salem city map, also from this era, was produced by John William Hill in 1854. Here is a map that defies categorization: it’s part panorama, part rendering. The detail, perhaps a bit idealized, is amazing, especially if you view it with a zoom feature. Yet the people are stick figures; it’s all about buildings and streets.
Another artist and lithographer who was producing “low-level” (I’m referring to perspective rather than quality) vista maps of American cities in the middle of the nineteenth century was Edwin Whitefield, who emigrated to America from England in 1838 and almost immediately began to earn his living by making on-the-spot sketches of his new country. Like Bachelder, it was the built landscape that caught his eye rather than the natural one, and no doubt both he and Bachelder knew that city fathers would be far more likely to pay for their work than farmers. Later in his life, Whitefield moved to the Boston area and became a real booster of the New England heritage, publishing several volumes of renderings of first period homes under the title Homes of our Forefathers. Perhaps he wanted to capture them before the urban landscape swallowed them up.
Whitefield’s Views of Salem, Lynn, Beverly and Danvers, Massachusetts, 1850 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery), and two Salem houses in Houses of our Forefathers (1880).