New York City in 10½ Historical Maps

Posted on 4 May 2015

Birds Eye View Map of New York City and Vicinity (1909)

Few cities have, from their beginning, been mapped as beautifully as New York City, especially its island heart, Manhattan. The following 10½ historical maps (the final one being a composite of two related images from the 1939 world’s fair) give a good sense of the multiple transformations of the city’s physical and social geography—and accompanying changes in cartographic style. The maps date from the era of explorer Henry Hudson to that of planner Robert Moses. In this sweep of time, a Lenape homeland became a Dutch outpost became English colony became an American capital became an immigrant terminal. In the U.S. period, the “island of the hills” was spatially rationalized—and drained, and leveled—into the island of the grid. A landscape of soft edges (inlets, marshes, creeks, springs, lakes) became a hardened container for one green Central Park. After centuries of inter-city movement defined by water, a subway system inaugurated new ways of moving (and cartographic seeing) in the “City of Greater New York”—the five-borough consolidation of 1898. The subsequent automobile era drew mapmakers further outward from Manhattan Island, and, in the process, compelled them to rotate the standard view from horizontal to vertical. As of 1939, Queens, not Manhattan, looked like the city of tomorrow.


1. Johannes Vingboons [?], “Manatus Gelegen op de Noot Rivier,” ca. 1670, from an 1639 original. Library of Congress.

1639 NYC map


2. Great Britain War Office, “[Benjamin Franklin] Steven’s facsimile of British head quarters manuscript map,” 1782, detail view. David Rumsey Map Collection.

1782 NYC map


3. David H. Burr, “City and County of New York,” 1832. David Rumsey Map Collection.

1832 NYC map


4. Matthew Dripps, “City and County of New-York North of 50th Street,” 1851. David Rumsey Map Collection.

1851 NYC map


5. Egbert L. Viele, “Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York,” 1865. David Rumsey Map Collection.

1865 NYC map

6. D. A. Edsall, “New-York City Guide Map,” 1880. David Rumsey Map Collection.

1878 NYC map


7. U.S. Census Office, “New York—1880, Parks,” Report on the Social Statistics of Cities, 1886. University of Texas.

1880 NYC map

8. F. E. Pierce, “The Tenement-House Committee Maps,” 1895. Library of Congress.

1895 NYC map

9. “Routes of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company,” 1924. Library of Congress.

1924 NYC map


10. George Annand, “Pictorial Map of New York,” 1939 (David Rumsey Map Collection); “Map of the New York World’s Fair and Approaches,” 1939 (David Rumsey Map Collection).

1939 NYC map

Suggested reading

• Paul E. Cohen and Robert T. Augustyn, Manhattan in Maps, 1527–1995 (New York: Rizzoli, 1997).
• Hilary Ballon, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
• Eric Hamburger, The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History, rev. ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
• Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
• Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Knopf, 1974).
• Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York (New York: Norton, 2007).
• Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
• Theodore Steinberg, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).
• Eric Sanderson, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (New York: Abrams, 2009).

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