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Mapping Out Histories: Leventhal Map Center Follows Boston’s Changing Footprint

News & Features | December 4, 2017

While many Boston area locals feel familiar with their physical surroundings, fewer know about the intricate details and history of how the spaces they occupy relate to each other and initially came to be. In an age of sophisticated digital GPS navigation, cartography and paper mapping may seem like an antiquated practice, but maps can actually reveal much more than just directions and geographical characteristics, and even tell otherwise obscured stories of cultural histories. This is precisely the mission of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, a nonprofit organization that operates within the Boston Public Library.

The Map Center, established in 2004 in the library’s McKim building in Copley Square, contains a collection of over 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases coming from a plethora of different places and times—one of the 10 largest in the country. The Center’s website describes their goals as using their collection to provide for “the enjoyment and education of all through exhibitions, educational programs,” as well as “developing innovative uses of maps and geographic materials to engage young people’s curiosity about the world, thereby enhancing their understanding of geography, history, world cultures, and citizenship.”

Diving deeper into their mission, the Center focuses primarily on two main goals: conservation and accessibility. In terms of the former, the Center has approximately 12,000 maps dating prior to 1900, making the preservation and digitization of these items a critical aspect of its mission. The Center’s oldest map is a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographia from 1482, which was instrumental in influencing ways of thinking in the Medieval Muslim Caliphate and Renaissance Europe.

The Center also seeks to make its collection accessible to all, and offers a broad range of educational services. While the Center is a trove for academic researchers, it also offers local schools the opportunity to bring class field trips and conducts workshops for educators. These activities demonstrate how maps can be important for the narration of history through a spatial lens, which is indicative of how Boston has been portrayed cartographically since its founding.

This is not a new idea for the Map Center. An exhibit from 1999 (which was also published as a book entitled Mapping Boston) aimed to convey exactly this purpose. The book’s introduction starts off by saying that, “using a map to broaden one’s understanding of a place is especially useful for a city like Boston, whose complex social history is matched by its radical geographic transformation over the years, a transformation best recorded in a sequence of maps.”

Ronald Grim, the curator of the Leventhal Map Center, echoes these sentiments, both in reference to his own role and that of the Center in portraying the history of Greater Boston. Grim describes his job as “to provide direction in the Center’s programming and curatorial matters.” He started out as one of only two employees in the Center, but now has a staff of eight employees who cater to more specialized roles, such as education, cataloging, outreach, and development.

Grim emphasizes that maps often have the power to capture societal changes that may go unnoticed by other sources. For example, as Boston has grown in importance as an economic center from the 19th into the 20th century, the relationships between the smaller towns surrounding it have transformed as well. Particularly, previously distinct towns have lost some of their individuality at the price of being a part of the Greater Boston Area.

“Initially, these little towns like Medford and Malden are separate villages focused on their churches and maybe a particular industry,” Grim said. “As Boston itself grows in economic influence and continues to grow outward, these smaller communities become subsidiary to Boston, and eventually in the 20th century are sort of subsumed by the urban growth of the metropolitan area, so it’s hard to really tell one town from another.”

This revelation is precisely why the studies of cartography and geography can be helpful in fully understanding societal evolution. In Boston’s case, what is interesting is that while this homogenizing effect has been observed physiologically, many of these towns still maintain very distinct political systems. Boston itself, for example, is divided into several districts which each have their own city councilors. The geographic makeup of Boston today is defined by processes of expansion in past, as it engaged in landfilling, annexing neighboring towns (Roxbury, Charlestown, Allston), and urbanizing. Cambridge, on the other hand, is governed by a board of city councilors at large, and no governance exists between Boston and Cambridge, despite their geographic proximity. This reveals a disconnect between the way the localities of the Boston area are viewed externally versus how they actually operate.

Looking at maps depicting Greater Boston in the 18th century, this relationship becomes obvious. A plan of Boston in New England with its environs from 1777 (Figure 1) showcases the area with abundant wilderness, identifiable only by geographical landmarks such as the historical Winter Hill Fort area of modern-day Somerville and Harvard College in Cambridge. Medford, the original site of Tufts College, is noticeably absent from this depiction, suggesting that it did not yet quite exhibit the same importance in relation to Boston as it does today.

The post-Revolutionary era, however, saw this change as industrialization brought increased interconnectivity to the Boston area. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, maps became markers of these shifting relationships and increased urbanization. Increasingly sophisticated mapmaking technology, like the development of lithographs, also allowed maps to be printed cheaper, faster, and in larger quantities.

According to Grim, all of these changes together tie into the evolution of mapping. He explains that, “the mapmakers in the 19th century really played to the market of individual localities, they were really playing on the pride of those particular communities,” he said. “They hang it on their well and it becomes a part of their identity.”

The commercialization of maps coincided with this change in identity, and indicative of this change was the popularization of two new forms of maps in the 19th century: bird’s eye view and town center. He referenced one of the Center’s maps, West Medford, Massachusetts from 1855 (Figure 2), which documents the various plots of land surrounding Tufts College, held by its founder Charles Tufts, and follows the institution three years after its founding. A later version mapping the same area, called Map of the town of Medford, Middlesex County, Mass. from 1897 (Figure 3) reflected Medford’s changing importance as a location. It showcases Tufts College on historic Medford Hillside, now using a “birds eye” perspective from above to depict a much more detailed landscape of Medford and all the changes it incurred over the 19th century. These maps can thus serve as an indication in the rising significance of different townships over the century.

Another change of the 20th century captured by mapping is the development of transportation technology in the Boston area, specifically, the T system. While any Boston area resident is familiar with the color-coded T map and benefits from the convenience and mobility it provides them, this particular map also more broadly demonstrates the interconnectivity that has increased between distinct townships over the years.

Grim echoes this point. “In the 20th century what we begin to see are more maps of Boston and its metropolitan area,” he said. “With those maps, you would start to see the major connections from the local communities into Boston.”

While increased urbanization has led to a heightened sense of a Boston metropolitan, this has simultaneously created a community both inclusive and exclusive of Boston and Tufts’ pasts. What some of these maps portray may feel like a sense of unity throughout the area but certain existing barriers in politics and community structures may suggest this to be false. In this way, studying maps in conjunction with other historical evidence and social sciences can help to tell a complete story of urban development.

As Grim puts it, in some senses, this is precisely what is evident when looking at the Boston area on a map today. “You lose the detail, but you pick up the connections,” he said.