Hopkins professor examines Baltimore history through maps

By DEREK MORITZ | March 14, 2019

John Martin Vincent Professor of History Mary P. Ryan discussed her new book Taking the Land to Make the City: A Bicoastal History of North America at the Peabody Library on Tuesday. In her talk, Ryan examined the history of urban developments in Baltimore through a set of maps from the 19th century. 

Ryan began by explaining that while people are generally interested in maps as a historical object, they tend to be criticized when compared to other historical sources. 

“Maps are also given an awful lot of criticism. They’re seen so often as very tricky sources — they distort, they’re full of hyperbole, they are very poor transcriptions of reality,” she said. “But I want to tell you that based on my use of them, they’re critical sources for any discipline.”

According to Ryan, what makes maps so important to historians is that they can be used to track critical historical issues like trends in democracy, the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the 19th century city.

“It seems to me that, here’s a space that I can watch a city being built from the ground up because before the late 18th century, there’s no city there,” Ryan said. 

Ryan’s first map was from 1799 and depicted the center of Baltimore City as a series of hot pink and yellow plots and the surrounding rural region as a fragmented array of light pink and green areas. These physical differences accentuated the stark differences between the expanding urban centers and shrinking rural areas in Baltimore’s early history. 

This map also included a list of notable locations, a feature still present on many modern maps. Ryan also emphasized the inclusion of churches that had black congregations as well as churches with white congregations. 

While examining another series of maps, Ryan said that surveyors drew lines to show fields and indigenous hunting grounds, among other things. Many of these maps consisted of rough rectangles that simplified the social and political process of dividing up land. 

One of these maps, which focused on an area near the present day Baltimore harbor, was specifically painted in with blue watercolor. According to Ryan, this was no mistake: The wharfs of early Baltimore were the center of commerce and thus were accentuated with blue.

Ryan stated that her interest in the history of the city of Baltimore speaks to a more personal affinity towards 19th century cities as a whole, not just in the way in which it transmits information but also reflects aesthetic refinement. 

“As a historian of cities, I happen to think cities are the most beautiful works of art and craftsmanship,” she said.

Ryan also discussed ways in which maps were used as a tool of political governance and research by the Baltimore City Council. 

“They would expand it with time as the city grew, and then it would get tattered and worn, and they would put up $500 to make a new copy,” she said. “It served as a way to envision a whole city up until the 1880s.”

The remainder of Ryan’s talk focused on how these maps show outstanding features of Baltimore’s development with regard to its integration of innovative technology, ground-breaking monuments and social progressivism. 

According to Ryan, the George Washington Monument in Mount Vernon and the Lady Baltimore monument in Monument Square near the courthouse were also important constructions for their day. The Lady Baltimore monument was a huge feat, as it was one of the first monuments to not only feature a prominent leader or general, but also embody an entire city as a whole through it’s personification through Lady Baltimore, Ryan said.

These monuments were significant as they were public and open spaces, free for everyone to use regardless of gender or race. 

Ryan ended her talk with a lithograph depicting people in Monument Square celebrating the passage of the 15th amendment, which granted African-American men the right to vote.

George Washington University Professor Karen Ahlquist was impressed by the way in which Ryan used her background as a historian of trends in democracy in order to analyze outstanding features of Baltimore history. 

“I know that she has been involved a lot as a historian of democracy, and so being able to make the case that compared to some other cities on the East Coast, Baltimore sort of ‘had it more’ because it didn’t have so much of the heavy-duty elite kicking everyone else around, that was a very interesting perspective,” Ahlquist said. 

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