When I was working in central West Virginia, I would often see these birds-eye view maps of small towns, like Buckhannon or Elkins. I quickly realized that there was no way the artist - the maps were signed T.M Fowler - could actually have been looking down on the city. There wasn't a hill or mountain at those angles, and he surely wasn't ascending in a balloon to get the right perspective. How did he do it?
A town in a Fowler map is alive. Carriages and people ramble along in the streets. Trains chug along the tracks, letting out a trail of steam. A crew of kids play baseball in the park. A factory puffs out a stack of coal black smoke. Buildings are detailed and precise, and sometimes hotels, churches, and municipal buildings even get their own close-ups.
They feel in a way like tourist maps of today - not drawn to scale and intended to give more of a feeling of a town than a realistic portrait of what could actually be found there. While many of the West Virginia towns were mapped at the apex of their history - when they really were booming with logging business and railroads - there is an almost fantasy feeling that was added, as if a bird really was flying above an idyllic American town. You can see why Fowler would be able to convince a town counsel or civic group that a map like this would attract work and business.
Even though they were sometimes called "aero views," there was no aerial trickery involved to create these maps. No airplanes, no hot-air balloons. Instead, it was time, experience in the landscape, artistic ability, and an incredible attention to detail that allowed Fowler and his contemporary panoramic map-makers to create these beautiful scenes of small towns all across the United States.
View the full collection of panoramic maps at the Library of Congress here.
Come in, the stacks are open.
Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.