The bird’s eye view maps of the late 19th Century American west are things of pure imagination fueled by the scantest of real world geography and architecture. They were the creation of patient illustrators and artists, who like medieval monks illuminating manuscripts, worked in cloistered studios in Chicago, New York and the big publishing centers of the east. The entire premise of the genre was based on a falsehood, since airplanes were not invented yet and bird’s didn’t carry cameras. Bird’s eye maps or Panoramas, show things that no one ever saw or ever would but they triggered the imagination of travelers like nothing else in print. To convey their remarkable detail, the cartographic tapestries were printed on fine large sheets of paper using stone lithography. The railroads were the major patrons for large format city and town overviews, hand drawn in ink using property maps, architectural drawings of major buildings, engineering diagrams, topographical maps and completely invented semi-realities and fabrications.
Maybe because Commencement Bay was an important endpoint in the powerful Northern Pacific Railroad and maybe because newspapers and printers were early businesses in the city, Tacoma has a wonderful legacy of bird’s eyes. Some are pure illusion and others are startling in their detail and record. If architectural renderings and photographs were solo instruments, bird’s eye maps were a symphony.
Here’s a small selection of Tacoma bird’s eye maps from the Library of Congress(where you can download them in amazingly high resolution)