Map of the Month — October 2013

Map of Brooklyn, Williamsburgh and Lower Manahttan, ca. 1855.

Map of the city of Brooklyn (as consolidated January 1st, 1855), incorporated as a village 1816, as a city 1834, popln. abt. 200,000, ca. 1855. Brooklyn Historical Society.

This month’s map is likely a printer’s proof of a Map of the City of Brooklyn, consolidated as of January 1st, 1855. It marks an important stage in the transformation of Brooklyn from rural village to the city comprising Kings County, for it shows the first expansion of the City that occurred when Brooklyn annexed the City of Williamsburgh and the Town of Bushwick.  Brooklyn was growing in leaps and bounds in other ways, too.  Its commercial waterfront continued to expand during the 1850s and you can see its importance in the attention the map maker gave to identifying the docking bays, ferry routes, shipping lines and slips along the shorelines. In just five more years, census data would show that Brooklyn had grown into the 3rd largest city in the United States.

The newly consolidated city had 18 wards, which the map maker has shown in hand-drawn color and outlined in red. By this date, you can see a street grid predominates within the City of Brooklyn, while to the south the map maker has drawn little trees in the areas for the towns of New Utrecht, Flatbush and New Lots to show they retained their rural character.

While his depiction of the street grid shows how rapidly urbanization was progressing, the map maker exhibits a noteworthy attention to natural features. He has drawn trees and pathways for the Green-Wood Cemetery and the Cemetery of the Evergreens, and throughout the map he has indicated elevation with hachures–tiny parallel strokes that follow the direction of the  slope. For example, it you look at the blocks near 41st through 44th Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues in the 8th ward, just to the left of Green-Wood Cemetery, you can see what looks like a caterpillar. That is the hill in what is now Sunset Park. The map maker has also enhanced the shorelines with what look like contour lines, but he is simply using engraver’s technique to visually differentiate water from land by shading.

What were wards? They were municipal political districts originally created to elect aldermen. By the 18th century each ward elected tax assessors, tax collectors and constables as well. The ward boss was the representative of the local political machine, who retained his influence by dispensing favors and rounding up votes.  Needless to say, the system was susceptible to corruption. In New York (at this time a separate city from Brooklyn), the ward boss was a key figure at the beginning of the Tammany Hall era and the system had become synonymous with corruption. By the time this map of Brooklyn was printed, New York’s ward system had been substantially replaced with a district system used to elect state and city legislators, although ward areas were retained for administering public schools and census taking.  A look at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online archive reveals frequent sniping in print about the abuses of political power by Brooklyn ward bosses, but the abuse apparently never attained the level of the Tammany bosses or prompted an effective reform movement as it did in New York. Brooklyn continued to use the ward system for local elections until its incorporation into New York City in 1898. 

This map is unattributed, but identical to one published by M. Dripps in 1856, also in Brooklyn Historical Society’s collection. It is presumed to be a printer’s proof and had been finished to the point of hand coloring. The 1856 Dripps map has just two additions: the lower portion of Manhattan is also colored and the publisher information appears below the scale bar.

Interested in seeing more maps? You can view the BHS map collection anytime during the library’s open hours, Wed.-Fri., from 1-5 p.m. No appointment is necessary to view most maps.


About Lisa Miller

Lisa Miller has been cataloging maps at Brooklyn Historical Society since August 2013.
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