Department of Records - City of Philadelphia
SEARCH  

Philadelphia Information Locator Service

From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Issues 49 & 50, June & October 1983.

A Brief Discussion of Philadelphia's Maps

by Jefferson M. Moak

Anyone who has undertaken any historical research discovers quickly that maps provide valuable and essential information in their studies. In most cases, they assist in the interpretation of various facts found in other sources. Occasionally, maps provide the only documentation for certain facts. Whether one researches architecture, archaeology, social conditions, industrial history, or any number of other topics, he or she will consult maps during their research. Thus, an understanding of the different types of maps available and the information they may convey becomes an important element in a researcher's education.

Previous issues of the Newsletters have offered several ways to use maps in different types of research. The articles "Dating Your House," in Issue #27 (February 1976) and "Tracing the Origins of Minor Streets" in Issue #37 (June 1979) both contain references to the use of maps in conducting these types of research. Doubtless future issues will detail other uses of maps. Since maps serve many masters, as professional map curators tell us, listing the various ways in which researchers use them would fill a book. Any individual map may have as many uses as the researcher has projects. A sample of the questions fielded at any of the major map collections demonstrate the versatility of the map in research. These include the age of one's house, the location of old streams, churches, graveyards, mills and other landmarks long disappeared, the general character of a neighborhood in the mid-19th century, the development of the transit systems, and many others. Rather than explaining how to use a particular map type, this essay will be limited to furnishing information about the major map types available for historical research in Philadelphia, the type of information they convey, and a word about their intended audience when published. Hopefully, this picture sill allow an understanding of each type and their potential in aiding research.

In Philadelphia, graphic representation of the city's spatial relationships has existed since William Penn directed his Surveyor General, Thomas Holme, to prepare Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in 1682. Since that moment, thousands of maps of the city, its region and its individual parts, have appeared both in manuscript and published forms. Many of these now repose in one or more of the three major Philadelphia collections: the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the City Archives. Owing both to their innate natures and their areas of concentration, each collection contains strong and weak points, but together they house all of the major published maps of the city and its region and a majority of the minor ones needed for historical research. In addition, comparatively few manuscript maps have escaped their clutches. Smaller collections throughout the entire metropolitan region, i.e. Temple University's Urban Archives, help fill what gaps exist.

Most people are probably aware of a number of different types of maps through daily usage. The common street map, transportation maps, topographic and geologic maps, newspaper maps used to illustrate current events or the results of a political election, general maps of the world and different countries, and advertisers' maps deigning to show the location of a particular business often form the limit of the average person's contact with maps. On the other hand, historical researchers are familiar with other, more specialized forms of maps and atlases: the manuscript surveys drawn by various governmental bodies; the cadastral, or land ownership, maps and atlases; the ward atlases; and the fire insurance maps and atlases.

When using maps for historical purposes, one must realize that relatively few "historical maps" actually exist i.e. a map purporting to illustrate an historical event in political, social and military history. Private publishers and governmental agencies have intended most of their maps to depict current data. Indeed, the true value of a street map or a transportation map to the average person lies in the "up to date" information it possesses. These attempts to illustrate current data captures the city at an instant in its history. By using a series of maps issued over a period of time, one can begin to understand the growth, change and/or decay of the city.

Each type of map mentioned above seeks to serve a different audience. Owing to this decided bias, one must always remember that these documents are not infallible. One should at all times corroborate, if possible, the information depicted on the maps with other documentary evidence. Although one may interpret much from a detailed review of the maps issued over a period of time, one finds that cartographic mistakes on one map may be repeated on numerous ensuing maps before a surveyor ascertains the actual fact. In addition, the surveyor or publisher may purposely add fictitious information to the map such as street actually on the City Plan but not legally open, or buildings for which plans have been filed but construction not begun, in order that their maps may appear to possess the most current information available. The reverse, unfortunately, also holds true: some items deleted from the man-made environment still appear on the maps. The Sanborn Map Company, which corrects the information on their fire insurance maps every two years, has yet to remove a building which the Fairmount Park Commission demolished in 1958.

The source material for most of the commercially produced maps lies in the large and virtually untapped resources generated by the governmental offices of the Surveyor General, the City Surveyor, the Board of Surveyors and the Bureau of Surveys and Design since 1682. These offices have had the chief responsibility of ascertaining property boundaries, laying out and regulating the streets, sewers and watercourses, and since 1854, maintaining the City Plan. Chiefly in manuscript, these plans depict the legal geographic layout of the city alone with accompanying written material. Their clientele varies from the property owner and the real estate broker to the governmental agencies concerned with current property descriptions, the proper layout of streets and underground conduits, and planning. The City Archives possesses a great many of the early surveys and records: the Bureau of Surveys and Designs has retained many of the comprehensive late nineteenth and twentieth century plans.

The humble street map exists today as the lifeblood of the cartographic industry. The Franklin Survey Company, Hagstrom, Rand McNally, and other publishers derive much of their income from producing street and road maps. Aimed at a large broad-based citizenry, these maps provide essential information about the city's physical topography and allow the resident and the stranger to quickly become acquainted with the city's street systems. Historically, street maps have accompanied street guides, guidebooks, city directories and general atlases, or been available individually. The honor of publishing the first street map of the city belongs to Matthew Clarkson and Mary Biddle in 1762. (Earlier manuscript street plans had appeared, most notably William Parsons' plan of Philadelphia of 1741-1748.)

Although published erratically, many of the pre-1854 maps contain reliable information about street layouts, location of important buildings and general developments of the city. After that date, the map publishers often used the newly developed City Plan as their base, making no distinction between opened and paper streets and giving a false impression of the city's actual development. Even published street maps today issued by large firms, i.e. Hagstrom, rely largely upon the City Plan resulting in the inclusion of many paper streets and portions of streets throughout the city which exist in plan only.

Although street maps generally become rather uninteresting as cartographic works after the mid-nineteenth century, their adaptability as base maps has increased their usefulness. Publishers have enlivened the bland street maps by adding additional information to illustrate particular items of interest. For example, since 1876, numerous maps have been published relating to the various transportation systems located within the city. Other maps have appeared with information on street bed composition, topography, bicycle routes, railroads, and other natural and man-made characteristics superimposed on a regular street map. When published, the compiler aims these maps to serve a particular clientele. Today, they provide valuable information about then-current conditions to the researcher.

A published map form which reached its heights during the 1850s in America grew from the land surveys conducted by various private and governmental surveying bodies. This form, known as the land ownership map or cadastral map, originally illustrated property boundaries and natural features. Thomas Holme's Map of the Improved Part of the Province of Pennsylvania (1687) possesses many of the attributes of a cadastral map. By the mid-nineteenth century, map publishers had found the inclusion of property boundaries unprofitable but had expanded their format to include political boundaries, roads, railroads, villages, mills, churches, houses and names of owners, and topographical features. Charles Ellet's A Map of the County of Philadelphia (1843) exists as the best example covering the entire city. James Charles Sidney's Map of the Township of Germantown (1848) and other maps of the different sections of the city published during the 1850s follow more closely the popular format of the mid-nineteenth century cadastral map. For detailed plans of many of the villages and sections of the city and surrounding counties, one should use the insets of D. Jackson Lake and Silas N. Beers' Map of the Vicinity of Philadelphia (eight editions, 1860-1861).

The publishers of these maps had a variety of purposes in mind. By including a large amount of information, they sought to serve governmental bodies which needed detailed maps of their domains, entrepreneurs who had invested or wished to invest in these localities, farmers and land owners, and the general citizen. Often, publishers illustrated the maps with views of notable landmarks and farms of highly regarded citizens. Today, genealogists, geographers, and local historians rely heavily upon the different types of information provided on these maps, which gives them an excellent picture of the city and county during this period. The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania possess good collections of these maps.

The size of the cadastral map, which could reach to 6 feet square, contributed directly to the formation of the county atlas, in which the publisher separated the large map into its various political parts, placed them on individual sheets and bound the whole. The limitations of the cadastral map in portraying the urban landscape led to the development of the real estate, or ward, atlas. Fire insurance maps, discussed below, aided in this birth and created a format later followed by the ward atlas. The early editions of these atlases showed streets both opened and proposed, shape of buildings, property lines, addresses, owners and building names, and names of manufacturing firms usually on a scale of between 200 and 800 feet to the inch. Ward atlases flourished between 1871 and 1931 in Philadelphia. Real estate brokers, insurance and railroad companies, governmental departments and many individuals purchased these atlases for varied uses. The atlases provided a graphic record of the city which enabled the users to quickly ascertain what type of housing stock existed, whether the land was developed or rural and in general get a feel for an area without a lengthy field trip. By the latter stares of the nineteenth century, publishers had added color to denote the type of construction of buildings and their height in stories. Names of prominent buildings would also be included. The scale for the later atlases often varied anywhere from 50 to 500 feet to the inch. The chief publishers of Philadelphia atlases were Griffith M. Hopkins from 1871 to 1887, George W. & Walter S. Bromley (1885-1929), George W. Baist (1886-1901), John L. Smith (1886-1912) and Elvino V. Smith (1903-1931). Franklin Survey Company twice attempted unsuccessfully to revive the ward atlas, once in the 1930s and again in the 1950s.

The uses by historians of these atlases are many: one can research the development of a neighborhood over time; ascertain the history of a particular building; research urban planning, or the lack thereof; and numerous other topics. Together with the information taken from census reports, the city directories and newspapers, the ward atlases form an important primary reference tool in the understanding of the city's past. Genealogists, social historians, architectural historians and the local historian have all discovered the wealth of information contained within these atlases, making them collectively the most utilized cartographic record of Philadelphia. All three of the major map repositories posses good collections of the ward atlases.

A similar type of map paralleled the development of the award atlas and assisted in its later refinement but its specialized nature alas aimed at one specific client group: the fire insurance companies. Fire insurance mapping originated with the written surveys required by the various insurance companies in the eighteenth century. For decades, the size of the city enabled surveyors to conduct their surveys of individual properties and the surrounding neighborhoods without undue hardship. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the growth of the city curtailed the ability of the surveyors to keep up with the demand generated by the new construction and to adequately stay abreast of a neighborhood's changing character. Although proposals were made to map the city in detail as early as 1848, not until 1857 would the fire insurance map as such appear in Philadelphia. These maps showed the physical characteristics of the urban city on a standard scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) including some property lines size, shape and height of buildings; type of construction; occupation of the buildings, by floors if necessary; fire fighting equipment, water lines, location of extra-hazardous occupations, and a host of other information designed to service insurance companies in their survey of a neighborhood before writing a policy on a particular property. With the absence of ward atlases today, fire insurance maps are integral to the operations of not only fire insurance companies but also planning agencies, the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Board of Revision of Taxes for many of the same reasons ward atlases were important during the turn of the century.

Three series of fire insurance maps have covered Philadelphia since 1857. The first, known generally as the (Ernest) Hexamer and (William) Locher maps, appeared between 1857 and 1860 covering most of the built city from Washington Avenue to Girard Avenue, Delaware River to Schuylkill River. Copies of this set are available at the City Archives and the Free Library. Hexamer, who assumed control of the company, experimented with hand drawn corrections (see the set at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania). He issued a new series of atlases in 1872 which eventually reached 38 volumes and covered most of the built portions of the city. He usually omitted the rural areas of Philadelphia. After 1886, Hexamer corrected the volumes semiannually by means of paste-over slips of paper. When needed, a fresh volume would replace one of the existing ones. The Free Library and the Historical Society both possess sets of the Hexamer volumes. In 1915, the Sanborn Map Company purchased the Hexamer firm and in the following year began to issue their own series while continuing to correct the old Hexamer volumes until they could replace them with new volumes. The Sanborn atlases contain 29 volumes (Volumes 1-28 & 32). Sets of their volumes corrected to various years may be found in the City Archives and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Free Library and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission both have currently corrected sets. The general groups of maps described above exist as the most commonly used maps in the research of history. Perhaps the ward atlases and fire insurance maps, owing to their highly detailed portraits of the city, receive much more use than the other types of maps. The researcher should remember that the other classes of maps, including those not explained here, i.e. topographical maps, outline maps, zoning maps, census maps and aerial photomaps, among other specialized types, help broaden one's perspective of the city and understand the many facets which comprise its character.

Links to related information...
--> PhILS Home
--->Philadelphia City Archives