Maps and views blog

15 July 2010

Magnificent maps that didn't make the exhibition #5

The City of Urbana, Champaign County, State of Illinois
by Alexander Bowman.
Chicago, ca.1855,
Lithograph on 2 sheets, 99 x 143 cm.
British Library Maps *72790.(15.)


The town of Urbana, Illinois, about a hundred miles south of Chicago, may be to many (though obviously not to its residents) just an average town in the Midwestern United States, but at the middle of the nineteenth century it had big ideas and a big heart. This map, produced in around 1855, is as fine an example of civic pride as you're likely to see anywhere, and a wonderfully idealised portrait of a young town, its most notable residents, its aspirations and way of life.

Urbana was only a few decades old in 1855, but growing fast. Observe the familiar grid system of the town, with vacant plots of land just itching to be built upon. Significantly, the railroad had just reached Urbana, which promised a greater influx of new residents and trade, and communication with the wider world. The map is essentially an advert, attempting to draw in business and new residents, and it is therefore an overwhelmingly positive view of the city. Not a crisp packet litters the street.  

Surrounding the town plan are images of Urbana's principal buildings: the school, the church, the post office, the bank, buildings which communicate the order and structure of the city. 'Look at us, we are the picture of civility!'  It is an idealised view that would have pleased the wealthier residents of Urbana, people who had raised the town up from the dust, and whose properties are given special prominence. Some of them can be seen talking with neighbours by their neat garden fences. Mr Alonzo Campbell esq. (or rather his gardener) maintains a wonderfully manicured lawn, whilst the building suppliers Pratt & Brother (below) are clearly doing rather well, what with all the building work around. And good luck to them I say, they've earned it.

This map is all about enterprise, opportunity, and the individual, and for some reason it gives me a warm glow when I look at it and imagine what it must have been like back there and then. I'm sure that the reality was rather different, but this rose-tinted view is exactly what the map was calculated to show. A tad too self-congratulating maybe, but proof that a city is far more than simply 'the measurements of its spaces.' 

This great vision of civic pride didn't make it into the exhibition, nor did the excellent manuscript map of Darlington from 1659 (BL Add.MS 64816) which shows the Quaker houses of the town. Instead we selected the first printed map of Pennsylvania of 1681-2, produced to celebrate the succss of William Penn's grand settlement project. Another great map, but I can't help feeling we missed a trick with Urbana Ilinois. 


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