Exploring the Artifacts: Colonial Mapmaking

  • June 1, 2011
  • Posted By: Pennsbury Manor

Colonial Mapmaking

Pennsbury Manor | Exploring the Artifacts: Colonial MapmakingThis is, as stated on the artifact, “A MAPP OF YE IMPROVED PENSILVANIA IN AMERICA DIVIDED INTO COUNTIES TOWNSHIPS ANDLOTS. SURVEYED BY THO.HOLMES SOLD BY P.LEA. DEDICATED TO WILLIAM PENNBY INO HARRIS”. This print, shown above, is on display located in the porch of the House, above the fireplace. The map shows Philadelphia and the land along the Delaware River from New Castle to Pennsbury. It is an early 18th century map that is 26 ¼ by 20 ¾ inches in size. It is on white paper done in black printer’s ink and some watercolors.

Pennsbury Manor | Exploring the Artifacts: Colonial MapmakingSome features of the map include the crest of Pennsbury, decorations depicting a full net of fish and a harvest of food with farming tools in the top center, signifying prosperity and the abundance of resources. Key of the map include a scale of distance, compass, and in the top left and right corners there are boxes that say, “REFERS TO SETTLEMENTS OF SEVERAL INHABITANTS IN THE COUNTY OF CHESTER/ BUCKSANDPHILADELPHIA”. Terrain features shown on the map consists of rivers, islands in the Delaware River, trees which symbolize not only forests, but perhaps how dense the forests were by showing trees close to each other and some spread out, and clumps of buildings symbolizing settlements, such as on this map “Newcafle” and “Bridlington”. On the top center of the page is a close up of Philadelphia, which is quite significant in its layout. The Fire of 1666 in London destroyed most of the city. The main problem in London’s design was how close the buPennsbury Manor | Exploring the Artifacts: Colonial Mapmakingilding was to one another, thus the fire was able to spread more easily. William Penn saw this flaw and he designed Philadelphia to be organized in a grid pattern with plenty of open space between buildings. This map is not only an important resource to us in learning what the landscape looked like back then, but also how map making progressed through time. 

Maps with color and decoration such as this one began to appear in the 17th Century. Over time, maps got grander in their decoration, showing anything from Roman gods to mythical creatures to historical or biblical events unfolding on land or at sea. Along the boarders were sometimes family crests or university crests to show the power and prestige of the areas that the map showed. Close up boxes of important areas could also be found somewhere on the map. Small pictures of terrain features were also prevalent, showing forests, hills, mountains, wildlife, castles, settlements and bodies of water, to name a few. Map keys for distance measurements and other features were always on maps, just like they are today.

Pennsbury Manor | Exploring the Artifacts: Colonial MapmakingIn comparison with old and modern maps, our maps shows at least one characteristic of both. Compared to old maps, our map does not have any references to biblical, historical, or mythological themes. It was done in color, though it has faded over time, and the crest of Pennsbury is featured on it, which is also shown in older maps. In comparison to modern maps, our map differs by having land plots with the owner’s name on it, beautiful symbolic decorations, differences in landscape, and is less accurate geographically. The most common feature that mostly every map has is a key for which anyone could figure out and find their way.


 By Danielle Straub

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