Map Courtesy George Hayward, New York Public Library
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In 1664, the British captured New Amsterdam. An unknown draftsman prepared this pictorial map of the new New York. The wall visible on the north side of the settlement is where Wall Street is today.

Map Courtesy George Hayward, New York Public Library

Charming Illustrated Maps Illuminate the Character of New York City

A new exhibit highlights beautiful, funny, and intriguing illustrated maps of the Big Apple from New York Public Library’s huge collection.

New York City has always attracted mapmakers. Its instantly recognizable street grid, intensely diverse populace, and iconic, ever-changing skyline have provided endless inspiration for cartographers throughout history. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in pictorial maps, filled with illustrations that reflect New York’s culture at the time they were created.

One of the earliest pictorial maps of the city (above) depicts New Amsterdam as it stood when the British took the city and renamed it New York in 1664. The map shows the tip of Manhattan Island covered in gardens ringed with buildings, and British Man-of-war ships occupy the surrounding waterways.

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John Tallis, a renowned nineteenth-century British map publisher, worked with the highly skilled engravers John Rapkin and Henry Winkles to create cartography that was both accurate and elegant. Their collaborations included detailed city plans such as this 1850 view of lower Manhattan from Forty-Second Street South to the Battery.

This rare map is among those carefully selected from the New York Public Library’s massive cartography collection for an exhibition of pictorial maps.

The library has a collection of around a half a million maps—one of the largest in the world. It is home to the best collection of New York City maps that exists. Guest curator Katharine Harmon, author of You Are Here: NYC, chose some of the best pictorial maps of the city, spanning four centuries.

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Henry Wellge was a German-born map artist and publisher who produced more than 150 pictoral maps of small cities, mainly in the Midwest, ranging from Texarkana to Billings, Selma to Duluth. He made this map six years before his death, in 1917. Bird’s-eye views such as this one became a popular cartographic form in the 1840s through the early twentieth century.

Pictorial maps are particularly intriguing for those interested in the social and cultural history of a place. Because these maps are often meant for entertainment or commentary and don’t necessarily adhere to rules of cartography or geography, they can offer a revealing view of a place at a particular point in its cultural history.

“I think with traditional cartography you're kind of stuck in the constraints of scale and perspective and what people normally think of coming from a more cartographic or scientific basemap,” says Ian Fowler, Map Curator and Geospatial Librarian at The New York Public Library. “With pictorial maps, it's not only a representation of the culture and artistry of the times, but it also provides more leeway and more freedom to express how [the mapmaker] sees the city.”

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Established in 1925, the Bronx River Parkway reservation is Westchester’s oldest park; it extends twelve miles from the New York City line north to the Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla. It was originally designed in the late nineteenth century as a means of cleaning up the Bronx River, which had become an open sewer, dumping ground, and mosquito nursery.

For artistically inclined cartographers, New York offers so many facets to map, from physical and permanent to social and ephemeral. Mapmakers continue to find new things to explore.

Other maps in the library’s exhibit include “In the Heart of Harlem, USA,” made by Bernie Robynson and Langston Hughes in 1953; “The Queens Jazz Trail,” created by Tony Millionaire in 1998; and Arthur Zaidenberg’s 1938 Downtown District of Manhattan.

In the introduction to her book, Harmon muses about why New York City has inspired so many maps of such variety. “New York has no shortage of inventive thinkers who make excellent cartographers. Each act of creative cartography reflects both the state of mind of the mapper and the state of the city,” she writes. “Perhaps, in the end, what makes the city the most mapped metropolis in the world is that it offers complete cartographic liberty.”

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This map offers a rare view of New Amsterdam—located at the southern tip of what is now known as Manhattan—during the forty year period of Dutch rule. This is a hand-drawn copy made in 1916 of a 1660 map—the earliest map of the city existing today.
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This 2008 pictorial map of New York envisions the city 100 years in the future, when sea level has risen substantially. Drawn by cartoonist Rick Meyerowitz, "Meltropolis 2108" is filled with dark and clever commentary on New York.

Betsy Mason and Greg Miller are authors of the forthcoming illustrated book from National Geographic, All Over the Map. Follow the blog on Twitter and Instagram.