Monday, March 19, 2018

John Reps on American Bird's Eye Views

I just wrote about the excellent exhibit on Fowler's bird's-eye-views of Pennsylvania towns which is at the State Museum of Pennsylvania (as well as on line). One thing which I didn't mention was the excellent slide-show presentation on the general subject of American bird's-eye-views put together for the exhibit by John Reps.

John Reps is the dean of scholars on this topic. His classic Views and Viewmakers of Urban America is the "bible" on the subject, not only because of Reps amazing listing of thousands of these views, but also because of his insightful text on the views and their makers. Well, John added to this story in a very interesting slide show which can be seen on the internet. It talks about how the prints were made and includes some fascinating images that I have never seen. Anyone interested in this topic should take a look!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

T.M. Fowler's Bird's Eye Views

I recently heard of a wonderful exhibit at the State Museum of Pennsylvania which I am happy to call to everyone's attention. A description of the exhibit is given on the exhibit web site:

‘Every Thing of Interest Shown’: T.M. Fowler’s Bird’s-Eye Views of Pennsylvania, 1885-1905, on exhibit through May 6 on the first floor of The State Museum, showcases a series of bird’s-eye views, or panoramic maps, of Pennsylvania communities as they appeared during the late 19th century.

Urban bird’s eye view of the nineteenth century are one of the most interesting type of American prints there are. Beginning after the Civil War, the bird’s eye view became one of the most popular of print genre, with these prints being made of thousands of American towns and cities from the late 1860s into the early twentieth century. This was a period of significant urban growth throughout the country, and the civic pride which proliferated provided a fertile field for print publishers to market these visual vistas of America. According to John Rep’s seminal Views and Viewmakers of Urban America, publishers sent their artists out into the field throughout all parts of the country to draw and market the views. The artist would walk the streets of the town or city, drawing all the buildings and encouraging the citizens to subscribe to the view that would be produced. Once the entire area was sketched and enough subscriptions obtained, the artist would use a standard projection to turn his street-level images into a bird’s eye view.

Because these views were primarily sold to citizens of the place depicted, they had to be accurate and all buildings shown, lest an owner were to be insulted. The relative size of buildings might be off, some physical features might be exaggerated (for instance the size of a river might be increased to emphasize its importance), or a building not-yet-built might be inserted so the view would not be out-of-date as soon as it was issued, but on the whole the views were amazingly detailed and accurate. Thus these views are not only highly decorative, but are also remarkable historical documentation, providing us with a wonderful documentation of nineteenth century urban America.

Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler (1842-1922) was the most prolific of all American bird’s eye view makers. Fowler served in the Civil War and was wounded at the Battle of Bull Run. That led to a discharge, but Fowler kept involved with the army by making tintypes of soldiers. He later moved to Madison to work for his uncle, a local photographer. Fowler began his career with bird’s eye views about 1868 by working as a subscription and canvassing agent for Albert Ruger of Chicago. Fowler soon came to work also as an artist of the views, making the sketches and preparing the final drawings. By 1870, he set up as his own publisher and from then on he acted as both artist and publisher on many prints, sometimes on his own and sometimes with others.

Over the years, Folwer was involved in over 400 different views! He worked right up to 1922, when at age seventy-nine he slipped on the ice in Middletown, N.Y., where he was undoubtedly promoting a revised view of the city which was planned for that year. Fowler made his first view of Pennsylvania, of Altoona, in 1872, subsequently making more that 240 more views of the Keystone State, more than half of his output. As noted on the State Museum web site, because of this Pennsylvania has more bird’s eye views than any other state.

The State Museum exhibit is well worth visiting by anyone who is interested in bird's eye views or Pennsylvania history. The web site is also excellent, presenting much information and lots of images. The State Museum, along with the Library of Congress, have digitized many of Fowler's prints, shown both in the exhibit and in this blog.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Maps of the Scramble for Africa

Our friend, Vince Szilagyi, who is a scholar on the history of maps, especially those related to Africa, recently gave an excellent talk to the Rocky Mountain Map Society, The Scramble for Africa: Colonial Africa Explored through Maps and Artwork.


I found this particularly interesting as it made me realize that for maps of Africa, it is those issued after 1850 which are of particular interest. In general, it is much earlier maps which are of the most interest to collectors, with many focusing on the earliest maps of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, though collectors of American maps are very interested in those from the eighteenth century up to shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. However, for African maps, one is missing much of the most interesting material if one doesn’t look at the maps issued after 1850.

This is because most of the interesting changes on maps occurred after that time. A regular theme of my blogs and other writing is the fact that maps with a direct connection to history--which show changes or new information or contemporary events--are the ones which are the most interesting and valuable. Most of the printed maps that were published up to the twentieth century were issued in either Europe or America, and in terms of the knowledge of Africa and involvement in events in Africa, most of that took place from 1850 on.


Early in the nineteenth century, European or American knowledge of Africa was very limited to coastal areas, northern Africa and the very southern part of the continent. Africa was, for Europeans and Americans, the Dark Continent. Missionaries and explorers began to extend European knowledge beginning in the middle of the century, with new information beginning to appear on maps shortly thereafter.


However, it was in the 1870s that European interest in Africa went beyond exploration and missionary work, to economic and political colonization. It is a startling fact that in 1870, only about 10% of Africa was under European control, but by 1914, almost 90 percent was!


The “scramble for Africa” had begun, with European countries trying to exert their influence and control as fast as they could. Worried that this would lead to war between the European powers, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened what became known as the Berlin Conference, which lasted between November 15, 1884 and February 26, 1885.

With the resulting “General Act of the Berlin Conference,” the European powers basically divided up Africa amongst themselves with no African participation.


The maps of Africa published between 1870 and 1914 document the scramble for Africa and its results in a graphic fashion. Though they are late for most map collectors, these are maps of considerable interest (which, by the way, tend to remain relatively available and inexpensive).

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Appreciating (some) religious prints

I have been in the print and map business for three and a half decades, getting into the business because of my love of history and graphic images of that history. Initially, I focused on early maps—-from the age of exploration-—and historical prints showing scenes of events in the past. Even after all these years, I still love this business and enjoy researching, writing and lecturing about old maps and prints and their place or role in history.

One of the things that amazes me is that I still regularly come across new items which I have either not handled before or which I didn’t even know about. This is always an exciting thing and I will spend days researching and writing up a description of the new item both for my enjoyment and for the edification of our clients.

The latter point is a central policy of my business. Ever since I started The Philadelphia Print Shop with Donald H. Cresswell, our company policy has been to present everything for sale with documentation which places the items in their historic context. We believed in 1982, and I still believe today, that understanding the history of an old map or print is essential for its true appreciation.

One of the things that this approach has done is from time to time to allow me to come to appreciate prints which I used to dismiss as uninteresting. This still happens, as was proved just recently with a new group of prints we got in our shop which I was not even going bother to put on our web site. However, I decided I really should put them up on our web site and so I had better do some research and write them up.

The prints in question are religious prints, a type of print most print dealers, including me, usually dismiss pretty much out of hand. The reason for this is not that print dealers have a prejudice against religious prints, but that i) there are more religious prints than any other kind of prints, ii) most religious prints were done in large numbers without a lot of care for quality, and iii) antique religious prints generally have little market value.

Actually, there is, and has long been, a considerable demand for religious prints by the general public. These prints which hang in many homes around the world. However, that demand means that ever since prints have been made, there have been printmakers creating large numbers of prints to meet that demand. The demand, especially today, is generally not for high quality prints, but rather inexpensive prints with a strong impact. Thus most religious prints are not of the best quality, though there were far more top quality religious prints made in the 18th century.

So, all that explains that when we acquired a group of uncolored engravings of scenes from the bible, I was underwhelmed. That changed, however, when I began to research the prints. These prints are from what is called the “Macklin Bible.” This was a project produced by London print and book publisher, Thomas Macklin between 1792 and 1800.

Macklin decided to produce the largest England Bible ever printed, which took almost a decade and cost about 30,000 pounds! Of particular note is that he decided to include 70 large engravings based on paintings commissioned from a number of important artists, including Philippe Jacques de Loutherbrough, Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, and engraved by the best English engravers.

Macklin said the publication was to promote "the glory of the English school' of painting and engraving and 'the interest of our HOLY RELIGION." Macklin died on October 25, 1800, before the Bible was completed, but he did manage to see the last of the engravings, which was finished on October 20th, 1800.

Once I read up on this work, I looked again at the prints, and they came alive for me in a way that my initial, cursory look totally missed. While the subjects are all familiar, the images are special, with each of the artists taking a unique and inspired take on the subject selected. The engraving quality is also superb. I must say I was really surprised, but I actually became engaged with a group of religious prints!

The moral of the story is that almost all old prints and maps are “special” in their own way, and that the only way to truly appreciate them is to study their history and try to understand them in their original context.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Election satires

In November, on election day, just a year after one of the most traumatic election days of recent history, I spent a lot of time thinking about the drama and foibles of the election process. This is, of course, nothing new and there have been many prints made over time on this topic. This blog will consider two such prints.

One of the two prints is the second in a series of four plates from a series of images drawn by William Hogarth and inspired by a notorious election for the Parliamentary seat from Oxfordshire in 1754. That election was famous for its corruption and inspired by this Hogarth produced his series, supposed to take place in a fictional town of ‘Guzzledown,” as a lampoon of not only that specific election, but elections in general. The series shows the chaos and corruption surrounding electioneering in eighteenth century England, but with universal relevance to any election.

The first plate in the series, entitled “Election Entertainment,” is a parody of Leonardo's Last Supper, showing a raucous scene of a dinner put on by the Whigs to woo voters with all sorts of debauchery. The candidates are shown at left while various party figures and voters cavort in drunken revelry. Outside the window, a mob of Tories is rioting, one member of which hurled a brick in the window which hit the Election Agent.

The print we will look at more closely is the second in the series, entitled “Canvassing for Votes.” Here the scene is outside “The Royal Oak,” the headquarters of the Tory candidate. The sign for the inn has been partly covered by another sign ridiculing the Whig candidate by showing him as Punch distributing coins to voters. Ironically, the Tory candidate is shown buying trinkets to use to buy the votes of two women on the balcony above. Meanwhile, an undecided voter is shown being cajoled by representatives of the two parties, each of whom is placing coins in the voter’s open palms. Two drunks are shown at left, while in the background a mob is attacking the Whig headquarters located in “The Crown.”
A century after the Oxfordshire election, in 1854, George Caleb Bingham’s engraving of “The County Election” was published. One of the best American painters and printmakers of the nineteenth century, Bingham captured the election experience with as capable a brush as Hogarth’s.

The scenes are remarkably similar in viewpoint and composition, though now showing a scene that is a hundred years later and in America. Bingham drew the scene based on his home town of Arrow Rock, Missouri, and the artist can be seen sitting on the step in the middle of the image. The print, similarly to Hogarth’s, shows a raucous election scene in a small town.

The image includes candidates caucusing right on the steps of the Court House, an already tipsy voter accepting even more cider so that he’ll vote for a particular candidate, and a slumped drunk being carried to the poll to “cast his vote.” All this is similar in feel to Hogarth's print, but Bingham seems to have been of more of a mixed mind about the validity of elections, for other votes are shown seriously arguing and a wide variety of figures from all walks of life (though, of course, no women nor blacks) seems to cast a positive spin on the American election system.

Democracy is clearly flawed, as Hogarth and Bingham show a century apart, and it sometimes produces winners who are not worthy of their positions, but it is still the best system going. We need to remember the problems illustrated by Hogarth and Bingham, but it is our open and honest participation in the process which will overall produce a better society.

Monday, October 16, 2017


It has been a while since I’ve written about mythical geography, so today I’m going to look at a myth which appeared in the mid-sixteenth century and which lasted for about a century and a half, that is, the geographic error of showing a mountain range running east to west across the southern part of today’s United States.

This myth had its origins in the reports of the explorations of Hernando De Soto. De Soto was the governor of Cuba and was given a license by the Spanish King to explore “Florida,” which was the name applied to the essentially unknown land north of Cuba which had been discovered by Ponce de León in 1513. De Soto set sail in May, 1539, landing in today’s Tampa Bay with 600 men. He explored to the north and then west, discovering the Mississippi River in May 1541. De Soto died the following year, with the survivors of his expedition sailing down the Mississippi and then along the coast to Spanish settlements in today’s Mexico.

De Soto had set off to the north from the Gulf until he ran into the Appalachian mountains in the area where today's North and South Carolina and Georgia meet. The expedition then marched in a west-southwest direction, following the foothills and this seems to have led to the conception of a range of mountains running across the continent east to west.

This concept is graphically shown in a map probably drawn about 1544 by the Spanish royal cartographer, Alonzo de Santa Cruz, based on reports by the survivors of the De Soto expedition.

This notion soon made it to the general map publishing world, for instance in a 1562 map by Diego Gutiérrez, though he does seem to just scatter a whole series of mountains in North America under the large royal crest.

The east-west mountain range is even more strongly shown on Gerard Mercator’s important 1569 world map, one of the most influential maps of the sixteenth century, as well as graphically on Cornelis de Jode’s “Americae Pars Borealis” [Northern part of America] from 1593.

This notion of a great east-west mountain range running from Georgia to New Mexico was continued into the middle of the following century, principally by the leading cartographer of the day, Nicolas Sanson.

This map makes graphic one of the most important consequences of this belief, the topographical impossibility of a very large and long river emptying into the Gulf of Mexico from the central part of the continent, even though by the middle of the sixteenth century there had been numerous reports of the size of the Mississippi, beginning with the De Soto expedition. Sanson and other cartographers tried to get around this by having numerous shorter rivers joining together to form a large river near the gulf, but the mythical mountain range prevented mapmakers from showing the very real Mississippi River.

The southern Mississippi River had been discovered by De Soto in 1541, with its northern parts first heard of by the French in the Great Lakes region in the early seventeenth century. In 1673, Jolliet and Marquette sailed as far south as the Arkansas River before turning back, and La Salle also explored the northern part of the Mississippi a few years later. Both parties deduced that the river flowed directly south into the Gulf, though this was not yet proved.

In 1683, a map by Louis Hennepin showed the upper part of the Mississippi with a dotted line extending south. Note that Hennepin does not show any orography in North America, thus neatly side-stepping the issue of the mountain range other maps showed blocking the projected course of the Mississippi.

In 1682, La Salle continued his exploration of the Mississippi, this time sailing all the way down to the river’s mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, proving that the river was long as well as wide. However, for a number of reasons, including the idea that there were mountains running east-west across the continent, the mouth of the Mississippi was placed too far west, as shown on the 1691 Le Clercq map of North America. This became the dominant picture of the Mississippi’s course for the rest of the century.

Not all cartographers followed this, as for instance the Robert Morden maps of 1688 showed the mouth of the Mississippi in the correct location, but note how he has the mountains running right up to the river.

It wasn’t until 1703, with Guillaume Delisle’s “Carte du Mexique et de la Floride,” that the Mississippi was firmly placed in its proper course. Delisle was the leading French cartographer of the day and so he had access to the best material of the French explorers in North America. This map was based on reports from many of those explorers, including survivors of the La Salle expedition.

Delisle shows the Mississippi flowing in essentially its correct course, dealing with the east-west mountain range issue by removing it from the map completely.

He did include that mythical range on his 1718 map of North America, though like Morden, he simply stopped it at the Mississippi. This range made an appearance on a few subsequent maps, but generally the western extend moved further and further east until the cartographic picture of the southern Appalachian mountains matched reality.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Return of the Currier & Ives Buffalo

A few years ago, we posted a blog about how we had discovered the source of some very strange buffalo which appeared in the classic Currier & Ives print, "The Rocky Mountains." Well I just realized that the same buffalo turned up again!

Conningham lists five different versions of the subject of "Noah's Ark" done by Nathaniel Currier or Currier & Ives. Though all are undated, this was likely an early subject for Nathaniel and I would imagine the firm kept some of these prints in stock for most of their existence.

Sometime between 1874 and 1878 (based on the address of the firm), they issued what may have been their last version.

This had a wide variety of animals,

including some very strange looking buffaloes.

This is essentially the same image as appeared in "The Rocky Mountains," which as explained in the earlier blog was based on an illustration in a French natural history from about four decades earlier. This odd looking buffalo first appeared in the print from 1872-74 and obviously the firm like the image, so they reused in a couple years later for a new version of "Noah's Ark." I wonder if it was ever used again?