Tools of the Trade: County Atlases
Architectural historians use a variety of historic map resources as sources of information about buildings and their residents. Nineteenth century county atlases are an important source of information regarding buildings, transportation systems, property boundaries, and property owners. Such atlases emerged in the post-Civil War period as former army officers trained in mapmaking sought jobs in the cartography field and met a ready supply of customers, most of whom lived in the Midwest amid newly prosperous agricultural areas. The primary contents of a county atlas were township maps showing farm boundaries, property owner names, and road networks. The township maps also could show a variety of other information, such as the locations of railroads, canals, water bodies, churches, schools, orchards, mills, and cemeteries. Most importantly for architectural historians, these atlases usually marked the locations of the primary houses on properties in rural areas, thus providing valuable data to help narrow down dates of construction in areas where such information is otherwise scarce. The atlases often also included city and village plats, which also sometimes showed building locations. Salesmen would canvas a county for buyers willing to pay a premium for an engraved portrait of their family, their prize-winning livestock, or, most commonly, their farmstead or business to be included in the atlas. While idealized, these building images are usually reasonably accurate and provide information about the appearance of such buildings in a period before cameras were in widespread use in rural areas and villages. Atlas makers might also entice sales by including brief county histories, biographical profiles, business directories, tables showing population growth, lists of county officials, or other information potentially useful to a historian. By the first decade of the twentieth century, county atlases had replaced engravings with photographs, when they included non-map images at all, but generally contained less information than earlier, with fewer atlas editions including building locations on the township maps. By the 1930s, simple plat books containing only township maps with farm boundaries, roads, and property owner names had replaced the publishing of county atlases.