Panoramic Mapping

A Popular View of Victorian America Cities and Towns

The panoramic map was a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Known also as bird's-eye views, perspective maps, and aero views, panoramic maps are nonphotographic representations of cities portrayed as if viewed from above at an oblique angle. Although not generally drawn to scale, they show street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective. The Library of Congress has over 1,500 panoramic maps, the bulk of which were done by Albert Ruger, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, Lucien R. Burleigh, Henry Wellge, and Oakley H. Bailey. These five artists prepared more than 55 percent of the panoramic maps in the Library of Congress.

The tradition of perspective mapping flowered in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Mathias Merian, George Braun, Franz Hogenberg, and others produced perspective maps of European cities. These early European town plans, most often portraying major political or marketing centers, were small in size and were generally incorporated in atlases or geographical books. The perspective was usually at a low oblique angle, and streets were seldom identified by name. In some instances, the views were hypothetical, and one pattern might be used to represent various European cities.

Albert Ruger's Maps,

A modified version of the Renaissance city view was employed in the United States before the Civil War. Like their European predecessors, these perspectives, usually of large cities, were drawn at low oblique angles and at times even at ground level. Street patterns were often indistinct. Preparation of panoramic maps involved a vast amount of painstakingly detailed labor. For each project a frame or projection was developed, showing in perspective the pattern of streets. The artist then walked in the street, sketching buildings, trees, and other features to present a complete and accurate landscape as though seen from an elevation of 2,000 to 3,000 feet.1 These data were entered on the frame in his workroom. Also popular during this period were views of American cities drawn as though viewed from extremely great heights.

Victorian America's panoramic maps differ dramatically from the Renaissance city perspectives. The post-Civil War town views are more accurate and are drawn from a higher oblique angle. Small towns as well as major urban centers were portrayed. Panoramic mapping of urban centers was unique to North America in this era. Most panoramic maps were published independently, not as plates in an atlas or in a descriptive geographical book. Preparation and sale of nineteenth-century panoramas were motivated by civic pride and the desire of the city fathers to encourage commercial growth. Many views were prepared for and endorsed by chambers of commerce and other civic organizations and were used as advertisements of a city's commercial and residential potential.

Panoramic maps not only showed the existing city but sometimes also depicted areas planned for development. Real estate agents and chambers of commerce used the maps to promote sales to prospective buyers of homes and business properties. Henry Wellge's 1892 panorama of Norfolk, Virginia, for example, was distributed with the compliments of Pollard Brothers Real Estate, and Thaddeus M. Fowler's 1893 view of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, was commissioned by realtor William G. Howell.2

Panoramic maps graphically depict the vibrant life of a city. Harbors are shown choked with ships, often to the extent of constituting hazards to navigation. Trains speed along railroad tracks, at times on the same roadbed with locomotives and cars headed in the opposite direction. People and horsedrawn carriages fill the streets, and smoke belches from the stacks of industrial plants. Urban and industrial development in post-Civil War America is vividly portrayed in the maps.

Advances in lithography, photolithography, photoengraving, and chromolithography, which made possible inexpensive and multiple copies, along with prosperous communities willing to purchase prints, made panoramic maps popular wall hangings during America's Victorian Age. The citizen could view with pride his immediate environment and point out his own property to guests, since the map artist, for a suitable fee, obligingly included illustrations of private homes as insets to the main city plan. As late as the 1920s, panoramic maps were still in vogue commercially.

Although the separate print was the most common panoramic map format, views of cities and towns also appeared as illustrations in nineteenth-century state and county atlases. Credit was often not given to the artist in such publications, but some of the leading panoramic map artists probably prepared views for these atlases. Ruger, for example, prepared a landscape view for the title page of E. L. Hayes's 1877 atlas of the upper Ohio River and Valley. The town views in Andreas's 1875 Iowa atlas, although unsigned, also resemble Ruger's work.

The Library's collection includes the largest panoramic map published, Camille N. Dry's 1875 Pictorial St. Louis; The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, which was dedicated to the famous Mississippi River bridgebuilder Capt. James B. Eads. It was produced on 110 plates, which when trimmed and assembled created a panorama of the city measuring about 9 by 24 feet. Dry issued the panoramic map in an atlas, the preface of which included the following notes regarding its preparation:

A careful perspective, which required a surface of three hundred square feet, was then erected from a correct survey of the city, extending northward from Arsenal Island to the Water Works, a distance of about ten miles, on the river front; and from the Insane Asylum on the southwest to the Cemeteries on the northwest. Every foot of the vast territory within these limits has been carefully examined and topographically drawn in perspective . . . and the faithfulness and accuracy with which this work has been done an examination of the pages will attest.

The St. Louis panorama evidently was prepared to show the city's progress at the United States Centennial celebration of 1876. The verso of each plate contains information on various aspects of St. Louis economic life, including businesses, professions, schools, churches, and governmental organizations. Every building in the area was drawn on the map, and 1,999 specific sites were identified by name. A note in the preface requests that any mistakes detected be looked upon with a lenient eye by an indulgent public "in view of the magnitude of the work, the originality of the idea, and the difficulties encountered in carrying it out." Dry's map of St. Louis is a magnificent extension of the normal single-sheet lithographic view and one of the crowning achievements of the art. Also impressive for their size and detail are the colored view of Washington (1883-84), which measures 4 by 5.5 feet, and that of Baltimore (1869), measuring 5 x 11 feet, both published by the Sachses of Baltimore.

Surviving panoramic maps are very popular today and command premium prices from map and print dealers. Facsimile reproductions of panoramic maps are likewise in demand. Historic Urban Plans of Ithaca, New York, has published more than one hundred facsimiles of low and high oblique angle views of American cities.

Panoramic maps give a pictorial record of Anglo-America's cities during the post-Civil War period and for many localities provide the sole nineteenth-century map. No other graphic form of this era so effectively captured the vitality of America's urban centers.

John R. Hbert and Patrick E. Dempsey, Panoramic Maps of Cities in the United States and Canada


1. "A 'Young' Old Timer," Sebring (Ohio) Times, 1932. The article is an interview with panoramic map artist Oakley H. Bailey. Our copy of the article is from Mrs. T. B. Fowler, Morrisville, Pennsylvania.

2. The information on the Fowler view is derived from an interview with his daughter-in-law, Mrs. T. B. (Roxana) Fowler of Aberdeen, Maryland, in November 1971.

Source: Library of Congress