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The Quaint Plans for American Cities, as We Envisioned Them 200 Years Ago

New York in 1776, Charleston in 1780, Baltimore in 1801.

Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright produced an Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States in 1932 that remains, 80 years later, one of the most definitive collections of maps (many of them innovative in their time) from early U.S. history. The tome, which took years to produce, contained about 700 maps. There's one showing the reach of colonial towns in 1650, another illustrating the geography of Lutheran churches in America in 1860, and another depicting the results of a Congressional vote in 1845 on whether or not to annex Texas (the yea's overwhelmingly had it).

Just before the holidays, the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab unveiled an ambitious project bringing the entire collection online, complete with the kind of digital enhancements that were never available in Paullin and Wright's day. The old paper maps have been geo-rectified so that they can be viewed atop digital maps. The atlas contains several series of maps across the years, which have now been animated. In one, you can watch the center of the U.S. population migrate from 1790 to 1930 (in the 1920s, the center of America's urban population was located in western Ohio).

As you might imagine, the newly accessible collection is full of arcane trivia about American exports in the 1790s, but also a wealth of knowledge about the early growth of U.S. cities, and what their first planners had in mind for them. One particularly delightful chapter is devoted to the "plans of cities" – all of them, of necessity, from the East Coast – dating back to as early as 1775.

In the digital version, these maps can now be overlaid atop modern views of what these cities became. In retrospect, the initial scope of the 1776 plan for New York City looks downright quaint:

This map of Baltimore in 1801 illustrates both the startlingly different scales of the city two centuries apart and the evolving ways we depict it: Some time in the interim, we ditched the flowery cursive script, the bald eagle emblems and the stippled farmland.

Here is tiny Philadelphia, in 1776:

And a closer look:

Boston, on the eve of the Declaration of Independence, in 1775:

Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780:

And New Orleans, in 1803:

Click through to the online Atlas, and you can zoom in on any of these maps, fading between the historical overlay and the 21st century background. The effect is enchanting, whether you're into maps, or history, or cities, or all of the above.

The city plans, though, represent just a fraction of the entire collection (reader help below crowd-sourcing more gems would be much appreciated). Here's one more, not exactly related to cities, but, well, pretty wild: a map of congressional votes proposing an amendment to the Constitution in 1919 to extend the right to vote to women. Blue for yea, yellow for nay:

All maps courtesy of the Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab's online Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.