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The History Of Bird’s Eye View Maps

More than 1,800 illustrated maps or bird’s eye view maps of cities and towns in the USA and Canada were produced between the 1840’s and 1920’s. More than 55% of the panoramic maps were drawn by 5 artists, Albert Ruger, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, Lucien R. Burleigh, Henry Wellge and Oakley H. Bailey. At least, 1,500 of the maps they created can be found in the Library of Congress.

The tradition of illustrated maps started in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Most of the bird’s eye view maps featured major political and marketing centres which were incorporated into geographical books and Atlases. It is seldom for streets to be named and in some instances, the views were unreal.

A modified version of the Renaissance city view was used in the United States before the Civil War. It was similar to its European predecessors where large cities were drawn at long angles and ground level. Street patterns were also indistinct. A large amount of painstakingly detailed labour was invested by map illustrators to develop each project. They had to walk along the streets, sketch buildings, trees and other features that will present a more accurate landscape.

Air transport did not exist yet and the illustrated maps captured the imagination of the American people. City views were only available from hilltops. During this period, views of American cities that were drawn from extreme heights became very popular.

After the Civil War, panoramic maps of towns became more accurate and they were drawn from a higher angle. Aside from small towns, major urban centres became the subject of the panoramic maps. During this era, panoramic maps were unique to North America. Many of the illustrated maps were commissioned by chambers of commerce and civic organizations to be used for advertisements that will encourage commercial growth.

Illustrated maps or bird’s eye view maps are still being created today for various purposes. Professional map illustrators like Maria Rabinky are commissioned by campuses, tourism agencies, cities, towns and colleges to create panoramic maps for their advertising campaigns. The map illustrations may not be geographically accurate but they can be used for way-finding.

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