Friday, February 01, 2008

Through a Bird's Eye

The past few weeks have been a drudgery, consisting of paperwork, doctor's offices, heating repairmen, plumbers and insurance salesmen (enforced sales pitches at work - I don't let insurance salesmen within 100 feet of my house). My usual stand-by diversions of bookstores and little shopping trips have been tabled in the interest of paying off Christmas and repair bills, so there has been little to distract me in recent days. Last week's cemetery excursion notwithstanding, I've been basically sitting in the corner since Christmas, playing my lower lip. Blbbb, blbbb, blbbb.

Last night was a welcome reprieve. I cajoled little brother into coming down to mother-sit so I could attend the quarterly meeting of the Bastrop Historical Society. I always enjoy their programs, but had missed the last couple due to schedule conflicts. The speaker last night was Ron Tyler of the Amon-Carter Museum in Fort Worth. His subject was Bird's Eye View maps that were popular during the post Civil War through about 1910.

I've long had a print of the Bastrop Bird's Eye View map hanging on my bedroom wall. I've wondered through the years just how the maps were created and admired how much detail is shown in them. A Bird's Eye View map catches little towns in the late 19th century, showing the terrain and including minute details of the buildings.

Bastrop Bird's Eye, 1887

Last night I found out how these maps were created with such accuracy. They were drawn by travelling artists during a twenty year period of roughly 1870 - 1890, with a few still appearing on the scene as late as 1914. The artists traveled all over the United States, taking subscriptions for the prints. If enough prints were ordered, they would sketch the town and then send their finished sketch off to be printed up and delivered a few weeks later by another traveler working in tandem with the artist. The artist would have moved on down the road and would be working on the next little town where enough orders had been placed to make the work worthwhile. Sometimes the sketches were funded by local businesses and used as PR to attract new citizens. The artists apparently traveled by train, as the maps seem to follow the progress of the laying of train tracks westward.

Using a combination of available local maps, probably insurance maps, and sketches of every building in the town, the artists were able to create their Bird's Eye map giving an almost 3-D effect. While some of the outlying details were sometimes figments of the artist's imagination, for the most part the maps are incredibly accurate for the time and give historians a snapshot of a town at a particular time in its history. Our speaker presented a Power Point program that enlarged details and compared buildings in the maps with photos of the buildings from the same approximate time. It was obvious that these were real artists who paid attention to details that no regular cartographer would.

It would be really easy to be sucked into collecting prints of these maps now that I know how they came into existence. Fortunately there are museums and history centers who have collected them. For examples of the Bird's Eye View maps of Texas, follow the link to the Amon-Carter collection given above. To see some of the examples available from other states, check out the Library of Congress Panoramic Map website.

I will be studying the two in my collection with a little more respect.

Austin Bird's Eye, unknown date


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