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Bird’s-Eye Views: A Brief History

Motivated by a seemingly insatiable public thirst for city portraits, a small coterie of artists—perhaps a few more than fifty following the Civil War—crisscrossed the country for the purpose of making separately published “bird’s-eye views” of American cities. These images, drawn from an imaginary perspective high in the air and appearing as something between a panorama and a map, satisfied a need not only to understand but also to encourage the massive urban growth that took place in this country during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. For municipalities and businesses, the views provided a popular and positive way to promote themselves; for artists and publishers, the prints kept the lithographic presses running and the market satisfied. The result was thousands of images of more than 2,000 American cities, including more than seventy views of over fifty different Texas cities and towns.[1]

Printing the Bird’s-Eye View

By 1871, when the first bird’s-eye view of a Texas city was issued in Texas, the process of making the views had reached a high level of craftsmanship. The development of lithography made the production of the images possible. Lithographic reproduction was easier and less expensive than traditional methods of illustration, such as engraving or etching. By the mid-nineteenth century printing technology had improved to the point that lithographers were regularly shading the skies and foregrounds of their black-and-white views with brown, blue, or green tints printed from separate stones. A few of the earlier Texas views—such as Jefferson in 1872, Brenham in 1873 and 1881, and Houston in 1873—show touches of the slower and more expensive hand coloring (Feature 1). While the majority of the views are two-color and three-color prints, some of the later ones, such as Houston in 1891 and Waco in 1892, were printed in several colors, a demanding process that required that each color be carefully printed in register with the preceding ones.[2] (Registration marks from the different stones are visible in the right-hand margin of the 1892 print of Waco, which, along with most of the other views referenced in this essay, is viewable in this site’s online gallery. Simply click on the Browse tab to search all the views.)

Although lithographic technology was relatively new at the time, the tradition of printing city views was centuries old, with artists documenting the towns and cities of Europe before the discovery of the New World. Printed maps and views date from as far back as the fifteenth century, and Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Cronicarum (better known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493) even shows a number of cities from an imaginary point in the air. Perhaps the best known early work, however, is Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s six-volume work Civitates Orbis Terrarum (Cologne: 1572–1617), which contains nearly 550 bird’s-eye views, panoramas, and city plans.(Feature 2)

This long tradition and advancing technology came to America with the hundreds of talented European immigrants who established printing shops in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and a dozen other cities.[3] There were, in reality, only a few lithographic companies engaged in this business, at least insofar as the Texas views are concerned, and many of the associates were acquainted with each other and sometimes worked together in arrangements that leave historians and curators wondering who the printers and publishers were. The Chicago Lithographing Company, established in 1864 by Louis Kurz and several partners and reorganized by Edward Carqueville and Charles Shober after the Chicago fire of 1871, printed Camille N. Drie’s view of Galveston in 1871 as well as D. D. Morse’s views of Fort Worth and McKinney.[4] One of the more productive publishers of Texas views was Joseph J. Stoner, who invested himself in the bird’s-eye-view business in the 1860s in Madison, Wisconsin. Agent William R. Patchen worked for Stoner and represented artist Herman Brosius’ view of Dallas in 1872 (and probably represented him as well in Jefferson, Waco, and Victoria in 1872 and 1873). Stoner himself represented artist Augustus Koch in Austin and San Antonio in 1873 (and probably in Houston and Brenham in that same year).[5] Stoner also had another partner in various endeavors, Albert Ruger, and for a time they operated a firm, Stoner & Ruger, in Cincinnati that published J. W. Pearce’s 1873 views of Denison and Paris.[6]

The printer of these views is not known, but it may well have been the reorganized Chicago Lithographing Company or one of the many lithographic companies in Milwaukee (Brosius’ brother operated one of the larger ones). Charles Shober printed the 1876 and 1877 views that Morse made of Fort Worth, McKinney, and Waxahachie (and likely Weatherford, too); he later printed A. L. Westyard’s 1892 view of Waco. The Milwaukee lithographic firm of Beck & Pauli (Adam Beck and Clemens J. Pauli) printed many of the views that Stoner published.[7] This firm also printed the drawings that Henry Wellge made of ten different Texas cities. Wellge began his bird’s-eye-view work in Milwaukee, where he probably met Stoner through Beck and Pauli. The artist also published with partner George E. Norris, both through his own firm of Wellge & Co. and with the American Publishing Company of Milwaukee.[8]

Stoner might also have had a connection to Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, the most prolific of all the bird’s-eye-view artists. Fowler first ventured into the business about 1868 as an agent for Albert Ruger, who was Stoner’s partner at the time. By 1870 he was on his own, using lithographic firms in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit to print his views. In 1888 he formed a partnership with James B. Moyer. Together, they concentrated on Pennsylvania, producing well over 200 views of cities in that state; in 1890 and 1891 they also produced seventeen views of Texas cities.[9]

The only Texas view known to have been printed in the state is Paul Giraud’s 1892 view of Dallas, which was produced by the Dallas Lithographic Company. Founded in 1884, the Dallas company obtained the press that lithographer Joseph Paul Henri had brought with him from France in the mid-1850s to settle in Victor Considerant’s utopian community at nearby La Réunion.[10]

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Traditional Landscapes and the Bird’s-Eye View

Most urban portraits were done in the manner of traditional landscape paintings up until the 1850s. Theodore Gentilz’s panorama of Castroville (Feature 3), Hermann Lungkwitz’s view of Fredericksburg (Feature 4), and Helmuth Holtz’s view of Indianola (Feature 5) are good examples—views made from an elevated perspective, albeit a fairly realistic one, such as a nearby hill or, in the case of Indianola, from the yard of the barque Texana in the bay. One of the first American artists to depart from this standard panorama format was John Bachmann, who made a bird’s-eye view of Texas and surrounding lands during the Civil War from an imaginary perspective high above the Gulf of Mexico (Feature 6).

The landscape tradition also manifests itself in the lush forested foregrounds of many of the bird’s-eye-view prints, a convention meant to suggest the close relationship between nature, or wilderness, and the city. (McKinney in 1876 is a good example.) Among the most apparent borrowings from landscape painting techniques are the scenes with stumps of newly cut trees, again, typically shown in the foreground. (See the views of Jefferson and Fort Worth in 1876.) This was a standard compositional practice that denoted progress and civilization. The wilderness is at hand, yes, but it is in the process of being conquered.[11]

Camille N. Drie produced the first bird’s-eye view of a Texas city: Galveston in 1871. It is easy to appreciate the transition between landscape painting and the bird’s-eye view in his work. His picture of Galveston satisfies the definition of a bird’s-eye drawing as an imaginary view of a city from a point high in the air, about a forty-five degree angle. But Drie also included in this view two tiny drawings in the cartouche (Feature 7), in the lower center of the print, that make clear his roots in the landscape tradition: on the left-hand side of the cartouche is a farmer following the plow (with a cornucopia behind him), and on the right is a self-portrait of the artist drawing from a slightly elevated point, with a tiny view of the city in the distance. This suggests that the print is an eye-witness drawing made from a nearby elevated perspective.

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The Artistic Process

While Drie’s drawing is surely that of an eyewitness, there are no such natural elevations near Galveston. The editor of the local newspaper explained that the drawing was made using “isometric projection,” an aspect of mechanical drawing that was widely taught in the nineteenth century.[12] Such a perspective required far more knowledge of the city than would a panorama, for the artist had to include the entire city, which could not be captured from a normal or realistic perspective. (It has been suggested that some bird’s-eye-view artists used balloons to achieve this aerial perspective, but the only reference to such use of a balloon that this writer has found relating to Texas was in 1891, when a Galveston photographer took a balloon ride out into the Gulf to make pictures of the visiting “White Squadron,” the first steel vessels in the U.S. Navy.[13]) While Drie’s Galveston view is indeed an example of isometric projection, most bird’s-eye view artists used two-point linear perspective to render their views, with a vanishing point on either side of the city. (For helpful illustrations of isometric and linear perspective, click here.)

The bird’s-eye-view artist usually began making his city portrait by consulting any available maps of the city, which helped him better understand its overall layout. Maps also helped to identify the optimal vantage point. If no maps were available, the artist might well make one of his own for these purposes. The artist would then canvas the town, sketching individual buildings from the predetermined direction and converting them to the desired aerial perspective. The artist would then typically make sketches of individual buildings, especially if a particular structure was to be used as one of the detailed vignettes in the margin of the print; in other instances, the artist might sketch whole blocks or areas of the town.[14] Thaddeus Fowler’s unfinished view of Sunset (Feature 8) in the Amon Carter Museum collection is likely an example of this step in the process; the drawing features notes made by the artist, either for himself in producing the finished drawing, or perhaps to guide the lithographic artist in transferring the drawing to the stone or zinc plate.[15]

The artist might spend several days in the smaller towns and weeks in the larger ones. A reporter for The Day in Waco wrote that “Mr. Wellge…remained in Waco three weeks, going over every street and alley in the city and carefully drawing every building and a complete plan of the city.” A Denison reporter wrote that artist Thaddeus Fowler “has been in the city several weeks making sketches for the work.” Compare this with the apparently short time that Augustus Koch remained in Cuero (his signature appears in the Muti Hotel register for only two days, one in early April 1881 and the other in late May, perhaps when he returned with the completed view, though, of course, he could have moved to another location in the city after a night at the hotel).[16]

In addition to the drawing of Sunset, several other drawings remain to show what the artist produced and how it compares to the finished lithograph. The Amon Carter Museum also has in its collection Fowler’s finished pencil drawing of Quanah done in 1890, which shows changes from the drawing to the print (again, both objects are viewable in this site’s online gallery). The most apparent change is the omission of the cartouche in the title, which in the drawing includes a handsome portrait of an Indian intended to represent Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. The vertical and horizontal angles of the drawing also differ modestly from the print, and the edges and bottom have been cropped, which means that the transfer process could not have been used in this case and that either a lithographic artist intervened between Fowler and the finished print, or Fowler made another drawing on the stone.[17] It is also apparent that corrections were sometimes made after the stone had been finished. A detail from Koch’s 1886 view of El Paso seems to show a correction to a street that had been drawn through a block, then redrawn (Feature 9).[18]

In some instances the artist might have based a subsequent print on an earlier drawing. The Wellge views of Fort Worth in 1886 and 1891 are similar enough to raise the question. Careful study of the two prints shows that the perspective is the same, the streets and the river are more or less the same, and many of the buildings appear to be identical. But there are also significant differences that mark the growth the city had experienced in the intervening five years. Perhaps the artist began the 1891 drawing simply by tracing one of the 1886 prints, then added new buildings, vegetation, the Spring Palace, and other buildings and minor details.[19]

Koch’s 1873 and 1887 views of Austin seem to illustrate a different relationship in that they appear to be reflections of each other; in other words, it appears that Koch flipped the 1873 view, perhaps by transferring it to another sheet of drawing paper, to create the basic outline for the 1887 view. This might explain how he misidentified the famous “Drag” on the west side of the University of Texas campus as San Marcos Street rather than Guadalupe Street. Then, of course, he still had to add the literally hundreds of new details, for the city had grown considerably in the intervening years.

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Art for Promotional Purposes

Bird’s-eye-view artists typically incorporated elements into their views to emphasize prosperity, progress, growth, opportunity, and wealth. For example, they focused on different methods of transportation to suggest that the cities depicted were a part of the national and regional grids.[20] Of the Texas views, only Jefferson in 1872 and San Antonio in 1873 do not show the railroad because the railroads did not arrive in those cities until 1873 and 1877 respectively. Certainly, the railroad was the most significant new transportation development, but it was not the only one: views of Jefferson, Galveston, Houston, and Corpus Christi emphasize riverboat and seagoing traffic, and the views of Austin, Decatur, Victoria, and many other cities show more traditional means of transportation, including horseback, covered wagon, stage coach, carriage, barge, sailboat, and even a high-wheeled bicycle (Feature 10). People relaxing, sight-seeing, enjoying nature, or hunting would also have served to encourage would-be homesteaders to consider a particular town for settling down (Feature 11).

Another clearly promotional element was the inclusion of buildings, railroads, bridges, and other developments that had not yet been constructed or completed. For example, the railroad pictured in the 1876 view of Fort Worth did not arrive until several months after artist D. D. Morse had visited the city to make his drawing. Similarly, the Old Main building of the University of Texas is pictured in Koch’s 1887 view of Austin as complete, although it was not finished until more than a decade after Koch’s visit.

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Financing the Views

As with any endeavor, financing the bird’s-eye views was an obvious concern, and the artists and printers tapped several different sources to cover their costs. The most popular method was to secure advance subscriptions, which the artists or their agents offered in every city. In Austin in 1873, agents for Koch’s view stipulated that a “sufficient number of subscribers” at $5 each would have to be obtained before they could proceed with the printing. The price was the same in Victoria. In San Antonio, agents required 250 subscribers to “ensure [the view’s] publication.”[21] Of course, additional sales after a print was published helped defray costs as well. The artists and their agents also relied on income generated by charging a fee to list a business in the legend or key at the bottom of the print, write the name of the business on the building in the view, and/or include a vignette of a house or business in the margin of the print.[22] Thaddeus Fowler sometimes designed his views with flexibility, as in the case of Decatur, where he placed forest scenes as a decorative device in the left and right margins. Had he not sold any vignette spaces, the forests would have served to frame the view quite nicely. As it is, those spaces for which he did secure merchant payment cover portions of the forest. Had he sold enough vignette spaces, the forest scenes would, no doubt, have been completely covered.

Merchants probably paid to have their businesses identified on the print itself. (See for example Koch’s view of Gainesville in 1883 and Wellge’s of Texarkana, in which the names of several businesses appear on roofs or sides of buildings.) Joseph Brown, a wholesale grocer in Fort Worth, purchased 1,100 copies of the 1886 Fort Worth view to distribute as advertising for his business.[23] His building is featured in a large vignette at the bottom center of the print.

Still another source of project funding was likely the legends or keys to the views. The artist numbered significant structures (and some not so significant) in the city and then provided a key at the bottom of the print. In several instances, however, buildings are numbered but not identified in the key, suggesting that the merchant might not have paid the fee to have his or her establishment identified. Koch’s view of Galveston in 1885 is such an example, with a number of structures lettered (A, B, C, etc.) but no legend provided.

Sometimes merchants paid to have their ads printed on the views themselves, such as Wellge’s view of Laredo in 1892, where the Laredo Real Estate & Abstract Company’s name appears in the sky at the top of the print. Other merchants simply adapted the views to their use. In the Fort Worth 1876 view featured on this site, R. West Starr and B. B. Paddock wrote their names on the bottom of the print, probably as a promotional effort on behalf of their real estate agency, which is listed in the key and shown on the courthouse square. In all likelihood, promoters and developers paid fees to have their developments identified as well: Magnolia Park in the 1891 view of Houston; University Heights and Procter Springs in the Waco view of 1892; and the Heights in the 1892 view of Laredo are examples.

Paid advertisements notwithstanding, city fathers clearly agreed that bird’s-eye views offered an effective method of publicizing their cities and promoting urban growth, and they enthusiastically offered the views for sale to their communities. The market these artists found for their part-map, part-panorama views was largely due to the expansive and promotional characteristics of Americans. The views seemed to become the epitome of a democratic art form, illustrating large and small cities—and all parts of the cities—throughout the country. One early connoisseur of the practice concluded that he would “hesitate to pick the most remote and unlikely place…in the United States and say that there was no lithographed view of it.”[24] As documents that encouraged immigration and urbanization, the views may be interpreted as later expressions of the pre-Civil War idea of Manifest Destiny, which, of course, fueled much of the country’s earlier expansionism.

The editor of the Sunday Gazetteer in Denison urged “every person who owns a home in Denison [to purchase] at least one copy” of Thaddeus Fowler’s 1891 view of the city. “Our real estate and business men would find it profitable, as an advertisement, to purchase many copies for circulating abroad,” he concluded.[25] The Victoria city council sponsored publication of the 1873 view of that city, paying artist Brosius $3 each for seventy prints, then offering them to the public for $5 per copy. Brosius apparently had some lithographs left over, as was the usual practice, for the council subsequently purchased forty-six copies for $1 each and then offered the prints for $3 each to those who had already purchased a copy.[26]

Sometimes views were copied by unknown artists who may or may not have paid fees to the original artist. Galveston lithographer M. Strickland and Co. copied Koch’s 1885 lithograph of the city to produce their own Bird’s Eye View of the Eastern Portion of the City of Galveston, with the Homes Destroyed by the Great Conflagration of November 13th, 1885 (Feature 12). The image of the city was printed in black ink, and that portion destroyed by the fire was overprinted in a transparent red ink.[27] A comparison of this copy with the original view shows that the Strickland Company focused on the center of the city, where the fire occurred, trimming sections from both the left and right sides of the original view and omitting the many vignettes that Koch had included at the top of his view.

A final source of financing for the views might have been the railroads themselves. The unifying characteristic of the Texas views seems to be the recent arrival of the railroad, which provided the artists access to such remote places as Eagle Pass, Clarendon, and El Paso. The railroads engaged in many different forms of publicity during these years, including posters, books, cards, rate schedules, newspapers and magazines, maps, and photography. Some of their publications, such as Mathew Whildin’s A Description of Western Texas, Published by the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway Company: The Sunset Route (Galveston: 1876), even contain miniature bird’s-eye views and panoramas of cities along the route, and sponsorship of the bird’s-eye-view artists would have been a logical extension of their efforts. One indication that the railroads might have been involved is the fact that the artists seemed to follow the railroads as they were established, whether Koch working in the Houston, Brenham, Austin area in 1873 or Fowler following the Texas and Pacific into West Texas. In addition, some of the views, such as Flatonia and Alvord, are of small towns created by the arrival of the railroad that probably lacked sufficient population to support a subscription effort.

Apparently, no records survive to suggest how much the artists themselves might have earned for their efforts. They were on the road constantly. During the fourteen years between 1873 and 1887, Koch produced perhaps as many as twenty-seven views of Texas cities and fifty of out-of-state cities. Between 1885 and 1892, Wellge did eleven Texas views and eighty-two of other cities. Perhaps most amazing is Fowler’s two-year record of seventeen Texas cities in 1890 and 1891, while doing eighteen views of cities outside the state. Sometimes the artists also served as sales agents and probably would have received a commission in addition to a modest artist’s fee.

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Were Bird’s-Eye Views Accurate?

While the question of how much these artists made for their craft is an intriguing one, the larger question—and one that is particularly appropriate as these views become better known—is “Were bird’s-eye views accurate?” The views were produced during a period of enormous growth and expansion. Texas had become a destination state for immigrants from the Old South, and new towns were being organized as migrants moved westward. Some have suggested that the views are little more than carto-pictorial reaffirmations of the nineteenth-century Romantic view of expansionism, a positive vision of America as a land of natural resources and economic opportunity. But comparisons with contemporary photographs—many of which are included in the Features accompanying the views on this site—and maps show that the views are amazingly detailed records of the cities, architecture, and geography they depict.

The artist’s usual procedure called for him to present the finished drawing for inspection, often in the newspaper office. The editors then frequently reported the results. A reporter for the Dallas Herald claimed that Herman Brosius’ 1872 view of Dallas was “so accurately drawn that anyone acquainted at all with the city can recognize any building.”[28] A newcomer to the city, attorney John Milton McCoy, sent copies of the picture to both his parents and his fiancée: “Did Cousin Sue deliver the bird’s eye view of Dallas I sent you?” he inquired. “How are you impressed with that according to your anticipations? It will give you a fair idea of our town,” he told his parents.[29] The editor of the Austin newspaper declared Augustus Koch’s 1873 view of the city “remarkable” for its “accuracy and beauty,”[30] and a San Antonio scribe allowed that while Koch’s 1873 view of his city was “not intended to answer the purpose of a map, it gives a fair idea of locations and distances, is particularly accurate in its delineations of the extent of improvements, and representations of notable buildings as well as private residences.”[31] In Fort Worth, a reporter described Henry Wellge’s view of 1886 as “the most accurate and complete drawing ever made of the city.”[32] Waco writers were equally as enthusiastic about his 1886 view of Waco. The editor of the Daily Examiner said that Wellge had presented “the character and extent of our city in such a manner that the casual observer will at once recognize it to be Waco,” while the reporter for The Day concluded that “the picture is all that could be desired.”[33] After describing Fowler’s 1891 drawing of Denison, the editor of the Sunday Gazetteer concluded, “This is certainly the largest, the most perfect view of Denison that has ever been produced.”[34] (It should be noted that not all views garnered such praise. In his piece on Wellge’s 1886 view of Waco, the reporter for the Waco Daily Examiner recalled that “there have been several attempts to make a picture of Waco in years past,” but “all [are]…incomplete and unsatisfactory” by comparison.[35] The reference apparently included Brosius’ 1873 view.)

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The nearly sixty views of Texas cities on this Web site record the beginnings of urban growth in the Lone Star State, and they are fascinating objects to admire and study. They are documents of promotion and civic boosterism, to be sure, in which artists emphasized the attractive features of a city, while tending to diminish or ignore the less pleasant aspects. As a general rule, the artists exaggerated the height and size of major buildings and eliminated many fences, out buildings, and electric and telegraph poles. But such embellishments and omissions are of small consequence and do little to diminish the remarkable detail the views contain. Thaddeus Fowler’s portrait of Denison, according to the local editor, “is believed to include every residence within the city limits, covering a territory of over three miles square… Every public school building, all the churches, and every residence [are] easily recognized.”[36] In sum, bird’s-eye views represent an amazing and underused body of work that contributes significantly to the documentation of the early urbanization of Texas. Never before have these fascinating works of art been so effectively accessible as they are now on this Web site.

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