Type of Map Perspective: Bird’s Eye

Caitlin Dempsey

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Not all maps are draw from a plan view, that is, a map that looks directly down on the geographic area being depicted. Cartographers have experimented with showing geographic areas from different angles for centuries.

One of these types of map perspectives is the bird’s-eye view map.

Bird’s-eye maps

Bird’s-eye maps are drawn from an elevated vantage point, looking down on an area as if from above. As the name suggests, these maps show an area as if viewed from above, as if by a bird in flight.

Bird’s-eye maps are also known by a variety of names such as panoramic maps, perspective maps, oblique maps, and aero views.

19th century panoramic map of St. Louis.
The city of St. Louis / sketched & drawn on stone by Parsons & Atwater, 1874. Map: loc.gov, public domain.

Bird’s-eye maps are frequently used to depict the layout of a city or region and can be extremely useful for gaining an understanding of an area’s overall layout and organization. Bird’s-eye maps are a stylistic cartographic technique that is typically not drawn to scale.

The term “bird’s-eye view” refers to how the map appears when viewed from the perspective of a bird flying above the area.

A bird's eye map from 1909 showing the city of Seattle, Washington.
Seattle is shown in this bird’s-eye map looking towards the southeast of the city. It promoted the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which was held in 1909 on the campus of the University of Washington. Map: loc.gov

Bird’s-eye maps were very popular in the late 16th and early 17th century Europe to showcase urban areas. Mathias Merian, George Braun, and Franz Hogenberg are some of the prominent cartographers producing bird’s-eye maps in Europe during that time.

In the United States and Canada, bird’s-eye mapping became population during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Albert Ruger, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, Lucien R. Burleigh, Henry Wellge, and Oakley H. Bailey were prolific cartographers who produced panoramic maps of U.S. and Canadian cities at the time.

Largest panoramic map

A plate from an atlas from 1975 showing a line perspective map of St. Louis.
A plate from: Pictorial St. Louis; The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, 1975. Map: loc.gov, public domain.

The largest panoramic map produced measures 9 by 24 feet. Published in 1875 by Camille N. Dry, the Pictorial St. Louis; The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley is a panoramic map produced over 110 sheets as at atlas. The atlas was designed to be assembled if desired into a large panoramic map.

The black line-drawing maps each contain a high level of detail, showing buildings, boats along the waterfront, and even people gathered in the streets of St. Louis.

Antique map showing the index page for a series of maps of St. Louis.
The index page showing where each plate in the Camille N. Dry page was located within the city of St. Louis, 1875. Maps: loc.gov.

References

Panoramic mapping. (n.d.). The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/panoramic-maps/articles-and-essays/panoramic-mapping/

Pictorial St. Louis – The great metropolis of the Mississippi Valley. (2022, December 13). Library of Congress Blogs. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2022/12/pictorial-st-louis-the-great-metropolis-of-the-mississippi-valley/

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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