Hamilton through an Artist's Eyes: Library Acquires Valuable Maps

Submitted by libbairdca on
Filed under Library News:  Mills Archives & Research Collections Maps, Data, GIS

The Eiffel Tower is there.  And the Colosseum.  And possibly your own neighbourhood.  We are referring of course to Google Street View, an enhancement of the popular Google Maps that offers a street level perspective of select cities, including Hamilton.

  (In order to accomplish this feat, Google sent out cars, fully equipped with antennas and multiple cameras to obtain a 360-degree panoramic view of streetscapes.)  Long ago, before Google Street View, detailed renderings of urban buildings and neighbourhoods were captured through artistic bird’s eye view maps.  McMaster Library has recently acquired six bird’s eye view images of Hamilton, Toronto, London, Kingston, and Montreal by New York-based lithographer, Charles Magnus (1826-1900).    

Unlike the street level photographs captured on Street View, bird’s eye view images are not necessarily accurate, as they are largely reliant upon an artist’s perspective.  Furthermore, Magnus’ images appear on letterheads.  While the exact function of these letterheads is disputable, they offer a valuable and fascinating look at Hamilton’s early development.

Magnus’ maps feature images of Canadian urban landscapes: factories line busy waterways, chimneys emit thin quivering lines of smoke, and vacant fields border houses. Captions for these scenes (“Hamilton, Canada West”; “Toronto, C.W.”) suggest a date prior to Confederation.  These images differ greatly from more conventional surveyor’s maps, which are defined by geographical accuracy and a uniform scale.   Maps of the early nineteenth century were created for the sake of utility; however, advances in printing, namely, the development of lithography, allowed for the faster and cheaper production of print materials.   As researchers note, North Americans were better able to define their internal geography through mass produced maps, not only of vast frontiers, but of smaller urban centers.  Promotional maps featuring inaccurate, albeit attractive, bird’s eye view scenes adorned the walls of city buildings.    

Researchers have observed several patterns that are prevalent throughout these images.  For instance, only images of prosperity are evident.  Industrial buildings are considerably larger.  Thick smoke billows from chimneys.  Transportation routes are key focal points.  While waterways occupy a significant portion of the images acquired by McMaster Library, such industrial themes are not as prevalent.  Rather, the letterheads are largely characterized by large fields and tracts of empty land, which suggest another trend namely the possibility of urban expansion.  The potential presented by open space is particularly relevant given the fact that the images were produced during the preliminary stages of Canada’s development.

Because the Magnus letter sheets are blank their purpose is unclear.  Letterheads were popular for business correspondences, because they presented images could ideally symbolize the essence and purpose of a business. But given their geographic imagery, and lack of connection with particular businesses or industries, they may have been a North American equivalent of souvenir stationary popular amongst British travelers.  In other words, these letter sheets depicted local scenery in a form resembling the modern post card.  

While their use remains undetermined, the letterheads provide insight into Hamilton’s early history, while also highlighting the subjective nature of bird’s eye view images.  The Magnus letterheads are available for viewing in Research Collections, located on the lower level of Mills Library.  For more information on this topic, you might want to take a look at these books in our Map Library, located on the first floor of Mills.

The City in Maps:  Urban Mapping to 1900
 MILLS Maps (1st floor) GA 203. E45

Understanding Maps: A Systematic History of their Use and Development
 MILLS Maps (1st floor) GA 201. H57 1981

By Lindsey Bannister