Portland in 1836: John Cullum’s Pictorial Map

A Map of the City of Portland with its Latest Improvements, engraved and published by John Cullum, 1836.

Portland in 1836: John Cullum’s Pictorial Map

Matthew Edney is Professor of Geography and Osher Chair in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine. He also serves as the map library’s faculty scholar.

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Why did John Cullum make this stunning map of the city of Portland, Maine, in 1836?

Portland was then a “walking city.” It occupied little more than the central portion of the Machegonne peninsula, at the south-eastern end of Casco Bay. The built-up area of the city reached from the Fore River (Fore Street), across the central ridge (Congress Street), to the Back Cove (Oxford Street), and was contained by Munjoy and Bramhall hills at either end of the peninsula. Before the later reclamation of the shallows, Portland was no more than half a mile wide; from end to end, little more than a mile, maybe one and one eighth. All this is to say that Portland was small enough for its precincts to be easily walked, small enough for its residents to know all its streets and buildings. There was no need for a map to guide residents, and visitors might easily be guided by verbal directions.

So why map Portland?

Because the map is more an image of a community than a guide to physical space.

Originally, when Portland was set off from Falmouth in 1786, like all New England “towns,” it comprised a large area of farmland; what made it distinctive was the port settlement by the Fore River; in total, the town had about 2,000 residents. In 1800, the population had grown to about 3,700, which was still small enough that everyone could still know everyone else, at least by sight if not by name. When Maine divorced Massachusetts and became a state in 1820, with Portland its capital, the port on the Fore River had grown significantly to about 8,500 people. While Portland could still be easily walked, its community had grown out of control and beyond easy comprehension. The problem was still worse in the 1830s, when the population had grown further, to about 12,000.

Some printers used maps to help counter this growing social uncertainty. A first effort in about 1815, made by the local surveyor Cornelius Barnes, was not completed and is today known in a single, unfinished impression. When a young engraver, Danforth Newcomb, arrived in Portland in 1820, he quickly proposed to make a map of the city that would be both “useful and ornamental” (Portland Gazette 23, no. 27 [19 September 1820]: 3). However, the project seems to have attracted few subscribers before Newcomb died in October 1821, aged just 22. Newcomb’s business was bought up by the Boston graphic printer Abel Bowen, who in 1823 published his own map of the city, complete with property developments planned on Bramhall Hill (now generally known as the West End) (Shettleworth 1971).

Barnes and Bowen followed similar design strategies. Both ran the Machegonne peninsula horizontally across the page, so as to maximize the use of the copper plates on which they were engraved. This orientation meant that north is not at the top of the map, so both added a compass rose in the Fore River. Both included the full width of the Fore River itself by including the shore of Cape Elizabeth (now South Portland), thereby encompassing the entire harbor that was the reason for Portland’s existence. Bowen’s map was less than half the size of Barnes’, however, so he indicated key buildings by numbered squares, explained by a legend placed on a scroll in the Fore River. Finally, Bowen filled the Back Cove with the map’s title.

Bowen’s legend is the key to understanding his map as an attempt to show the city as a community and not just as a built environment. He used the legend, or “references” as he called it, to highlight the important elements of Portland’s communal character: first, no less than eight churches showed off the city’s God-fearing morality; then, the state house, court house, and jail, its orderliness and law-abidingness; the academy and school houses (at the bottom of the legend), its educatedness; and the ten “rows” of merchant buildings and markets, the city’s commercial essence. Together, the legend reassured the locals who bought the map of the propriety of the urban community.

Perhaps prompted by the appearance of Bowen’s map, two local entrepreneurs each prepared and in 1823 published directories of the city’s residents, in an effort to bring the community into some kind of order. Nathaniel Jewett was able to include Bowen’s map in his directory. An updated map was engraved by David G. Johnson for the 1827 city directory, keeping to Bowen’s graphic conventions. Although Johnson soon thereafter left Portland for New York, his map continued to be used, with small additions and alterations, in the directories that continued to be published every one-to-five years until 1856.

Cullum produced his 1836 map within this era of civil growth and communal uncertainty, as it happened just before the economic recession of 1837–1844. It too followed the same conventions that Bowen had established thirteen years ago, but now with a marked twist: Cullum’s map was larger even than Barnes’ had been, giving him enough space to replace the legend with a series of vignettes of churches, civic buildings, and mercantile spaces; many of these small architectural drawings are the only images that survive of buildings that were lost in the 1866 great fire. Several other notable buildings on the map still stand, such as the Abyssinian Church and Meeting House on Newbury (then Sumner) Street. Built in about 1831, this church was built by and for African-Americans who were being discriminated against in the existing meeting houses, and, when completed, became Maine’s first black congregation. Cullum’s map contains one of the first published images of the Abbyssinian Meeting House; it was not added to the smaller maps in the city directories until 1846.

Cullum was not able to produce such a large and expensive work all by himself. The three printed names arching out from Exchange Street identify the probable collaborators behind the map. In addition to “John Cullum Engraver and Copper Plate Printer,” who made, engraved, and printed the map, we find: “Lowell & Senter’s Watch Chronometer & Jewelry Store,” who likely provided the up-front capital to fund the map’s preparation; and “S. H. Colesworthy Bookseller & Binder,” who likely sold the map (alongside the city directories that he also published).

Cullum’s map was intended to be publicly displayed on walls, being “handsomely painted, varnished and mounted.” (The varnish was a light shellac popular in the nineteenth century as making wall hangings glisten pleasantly as they reflected flames and gas lights). In addition to the streets and buildings, it depicted the voting wards, a key civic attribute of Portland’s status as a city. The map, Cullum advertised, “should have a place in all our Hotels, Counting Rooms, and other places of business, and all persons will find it eminently useful” (Daily Evening Advertiser, 25 October 1836). Just in case the message was missed, Cullum bracketed the title with herald angels who also carried laurel wreaths of temporal power and authority. All this is to say, this was a map to be shown off, with which to proclaim one’s communal identity as a resident of a burgeoning, civil city.

We invite you to stop by the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education to see this map in person, both the original and the large format reproduction that graces the floor just outside our entryway.

To see the map in detail: https://oshermaps.org/map/11753.0001


Edney, Matthew H. 2017. “References to the Fore! Local Boosters, Historians, and Engineers Map Antebellum Portland, Maine.” www.oshermaps.org/special-map-exhibit/references-to-the-fore. Published online, 1 July 2017.

Shettleworth, Earle G., Jr. 1971. “Portland, Maine, Engravers of the 1820s. Part I.” Old-Time New England 61, no. 3: 59–65.