Reflections on the Antebellum Mapping of Portland

References to the Fore!

Detail of Cullum 1836

Reflections on the Antebellum Mapping of Portland



The urban maps of antebellum Portland were at once unique and generic. They were generic in that they reveal a process common to commercial mapping in the U.S. in the decades before 1860: a local interest in displaying and promoting the nature of a city as a community, as well as a built place, gave way to the twin trends of cartographic standardization and the centralization of commercial map production. But they were unique in how the local interest was codified within local conventions, and how and why they boosted the idea of Portland as an economic and moral center. A core element of booster mapping was the imposition of a modern sense of the city of Portland ~ both built environment (urbs) and community (civitas) ~ onto a past when “Portland” did not exist. In this, the maps construed Portland as a place that was always nucleated; it was so distinguished from the rest of the town of Falmouth that it had to be labeled with its own anachronistic name, “Falmouth Neck.”

The interactions of these trends led to several overlapping periods in the urban mapping of Portland:

• local boosterism flourished during Portland’s growth and its early dignity as capital of the state of Maine (1820–1832), but was brought to an end with the loss of that dignity and the 1837 recession;

• maps of the city in directories continued after 1837, but in the 1850s steadily downplayed the city’s civitas;

• maps that construed a founding historical moment for the city ~ the destruction of “Falmouth Neck” by Mowat in 1775 and the implied rebirth of Portland thereafter ~ were produced repeatedly after the city’s actual incorporation in 1832, but only until the next inferno in 1866;

• also after the city’s incorporation, urban maps of the city by engineers and by commercial map makers from away further emphasized the urbs almost to the exclusion of its civitas.

This is not to say that all post-1866 urban maps were so restricted to national and engineering standards. Consider the map produced in 1870 by the U.S. Coast Survey after the city contracted with the Survey to resurvey the city in 1868–69, as it rebuilt:

USCS Portland 1870

[U.S. Coast Survey, City and Harbor of Portland Maine 1870. Lithograph, 58 x 77cm. Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine. OS-1870-18. Click on map for high-resolution image.]

This is a planning map, emphasizing the urbs, and shows the city and harbor together. The footprints of commercial and public buildings are shown, even in the area of devastation; these notably include the city hall, then being rebuilt (before it burnt down again in 1908). Tiny black squares for trees crowd the street edges and the parks but, indicating the extent of the fire, none are indicated in the devastated section. The map’s frame is much more extensive than previous urban maps and encompasses almost the full reach of deeper water in the Fore River and the Back Cove. But, and this is where the civitas sneaks back in, ever so subtly, the map is oriented with the peninsula running horizontally across the page, an orientation barely indicated by a large yet curiously undistinguished north arrow, all in striking contravention of national engineering standards. (In this respect, compare this map of Portland with the Coast Survey’s harbor plan of Portland and Casco Bay, surveyed in 1861–62 and printed in 1866 ~ USCS chart no. 325 ~ which dutifully adhered to national standards.)

This example reminds us that an appeal to civitas was not a simple matter, being defined by its discursive context as much as by the map’s actual content and structure. It could also be made by what was left off a map: the many variants of D. G. Johnson’s map of Portland that appeared in the city directories over almost three decades, from 1827 to 1856 (map 4.1–8 in sec. 4), continued to add new details reflecting civic and commercial growth, but after 1831 no further updates were made to extend the shading for the city’s “built-up” area.

The sense of civitas would be writ large once more, in the remarkable, colorful map designed by Katherine Dudley and published in 1928:

Dudley Portland 1928

[Katherine Dudley, A Map of Portland Maine and Some Places Thereabout 1928 (Boston: Tudor Press for the Portland Baby Hygiene & Child Welfare Association, 1928). This impression is accompanied by the envelope in which it was distributed, decorated with a portion of the main map. Colored lithograph, 75 x 99 cm. Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine. OML-1928-63. Click on map for high-resolution image.]

A drive to improve childhood conditions and nutrition had led to the formation in 1919, of the Baby Hygiene and Child Welfare Association to operate a child daycare center, to permit mothers to work and so afford sanitary accommodation and healthy food for their children. In March 1920 the center was renamed after one of its volunteers, Catherine Morrill; it is still in operation today. The map appears to have been a publicity piece, emphasizing the city’s civitas, and prominently located the nursery among the city’s major cultural landmarks. Its bright, fully saturated primary colors ~ in the manner of children’s book illustrations of the period ~ create a very specific image for Portland as a healthy place of clean water, open spaces, and fresh air. The vignettes around the margins summarize the city’s (equally sanitized) history.

The history of the urban mapping of Portland after 1866 thus continued to mix concerns for both the built environment and the community. Whether this community would have been recognizable to all social classes of the city’s inhabitants is an open question. One implication of this web exhibition is that the pre-1866 urban maps were largely consumed by those who could afford to purchase city directories and wall maps, which is to say the middle and upper classes. The view of the city’s community would continue to be very much a privileged one, as Dudley’s maternalistic map from 1928 suggests. The question for further study, in exploring Portland’s urban mapping beyond 1866, is how different genres persisted and sought to balance the urbs with the civitas.

Cite this Page

Edney, Matthew H. “Reflections on the Maps of Antebellum Portland.” In “References to the Fore! Local Boosters, Historians, and Engineers Map Antebellum Portland, Maine.” Published online, 1 July 2017.