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.
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