Oil Town “Aero Views”
Traveling from Pennsylvania to Texas at the turn of the century, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler created oil town “aero views” – panoramic maps of many of America’s earliest petroleum communities.
Fowler today has the greatest number of panoramic – “Aero View” or “Birds-Eye View” maps in the collection of the Library of Congress. Lithographs of his cartography (done without a balloon) have fascinated Americans since the Victorian Age.
Panoramic maps were a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interestingly, many of what Fowler called “aero views” captured the small cities near America’s earliest oil and natural gas fields.
Fowler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on December 21, 1842. He served in the 21st New York Volunteers in 1861 – was wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run a year later – and discharged at Boston in 1863.
According to the Library of Congress, after the Civil War, Fowler migrated to Wisconsin. He established his own panoramic map firm and in 1870 produced views of Wisconsin towns. A panoramic map of Stewart, Ohio, that appears in D. J. Lake’s Atlas of Athens Company is the earliest Fowler view in the library’s collections.
In 1885, Fowler moved with his family to Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where he maintained his headquarters for 25 years as he traveled the country.
Morrisville served as his operating center as Fowler began to draw and publish views of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio cities – including many oil boomtowns. His production of Pennsylvania panoramas was greater than that of any other artist. In the Library of Congress collection alone, there are 220 separate Fowler views of Pennsylvania.
An additional 165 Fowler views of Pennsylvania towns are in the Pennsylvania State Archives and at Pennsylvania State University. He also visited the booming oilfield communities in Oklahoma and Texas.
“Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler (1842–1922) was perhaps the most prolific of the dozens of bird’s-eye view artists who crisscrossed the country during the latter three decades of the nineteenth century,” explains the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. “He produced at least seventeen views of different Texas cities in 1890 and 1891, but that output is dwarfed by his production of almost 250 views of Pennsylvania between 1872 and 1922.”
Oil Town Aero Views
Historians have identified 411 separate Fowler panoramas. “His views of Pennsylvania towns suggest he concentrated on a specific geographical area in a given year, very likely to minimize transportation problems,” notes the Library of Congress.
From 1895 to 1897, Fowler worked in the western part of Pennsylvania, especially around Pittsburgh. In 1898 and 1899, he sketched West Virginia towns, and from 1900 to 1903, he was back in Pennsylvania.
He will travel to Oklahoma to produce a 1918 map of the “Oil Capital of the World.”
Fowler gained commissions for city plans by interesting citizens and civic groups in the idea of a panoramic map of their community. After one town had agreed to having a map made, he would seek to involve neighboring communities.
By noting that he had already secured an agreement for a view from one town in the area, Fowler would play on the pride, community spirit, and sense of competition of adjacent communities.
How did Fowler create his maps? Preparation of panoramic maps “involved a vast amount of painstakingly detailed labor,” explains a Library of Congress article on panoramic mapping:
For each project a frame or projection was developed, showing in perspective the pattern of streets. The artist then walked in the street, sketching buildings, trees, and other features to present a complete and accurate landscape as though seen from an elevation of 2,000 to 3,000 feet. These data were entered on the frame in his workroom…A careful perspective, which required a surface of three hundred square feet, was then erected from a correct survey of the city.
The “Bird’s-eye” or “aero” views fascinated the public of America’s Victorian Age. Advances in lithography made inexpensive and multiple copies possible, adds the Library of Congress article:
The citizen could view with pride his immediate environment and point out his own property to guests, since the map artist, for a suitable fee, obligingly included illustrations of private homes as insets to the main city plan. As late as the 1920s, panoramic maps were still in vogue commercially.
The Library of Congress article notes that Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler died in March 1922 in his eightieth year – following a fall on icy streets incurred while preparing a panorama of Middletown, New York.
Today, panoramic maps of American communities – including petroleum boom towns – preserve a pictorial record of urban life at the time. They remain documents with historic significance: For some communities, “aero views” are the only early maps that have survived.
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