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Bird's Eye View

According to art historian John W. Reps, during the nineteenth century as many as 2,400 locations in America may have been the subject of bird’s eye views like this one of Caledonia. Most of them were produced after the Civil War, perhaps owing to a self-conscious depiction of America’s continental Union and certainly due to the growth of commercial printers like Burleigh Litho, of Troy NY. Lucian Rinaldo Burleigh was responsible—whether as artist or publisher—for some 228 lithographic city views, most of them created within a ten-year period. The Caledonia map was produced near the end of this stretch, probably by an employee named Christian Fausel (Views 167-170). Burleigh had been trained as a civil engineer, but an economic depression following the Panic of 1873 pressed him into other ways of making a living, just as the Panic of 1893 many have curtailed his bird’s eye view enterprise.

Burleigh began city viewmaking during the 1870s and by the mid-1880s was well established in his profession. His usual practice was to work from an available map, determine the most advantageous viewpoint (for a village like Caledonia, typically 1500 feet above the ground), and make numerous small sketches at the street level. Unlike some artists Burleigh always used just two limestones to create his lithograph: one for the line drawings, the other for cloud and shadow effects printed in a sepia tone (Reps, Bird’s Eye 27). This gave his bird’s eye views a recognizable style regardless of their location. Another important task during a two- or three-week visit was soliciting subscriptions for the panorama; it took perhaps 100 persons, each paying $2.50-3:00, for a project to break even. In Caledonia that work seems to have been undertaken by an agent with the colorful name of A. B. C. Defendorf, who also had done work for Burleigh in towns like Clyde, Wappinger’s Falls and Lansingburgh. He exhibited Fausel’s drawing and promised that the lithograph “will of course be improved tenfold in appearance” (“Beautiful” 3).

The next section of this exhibit will tour through the bird’s eye view of Caledonia, but first it’s important to notice what’s not shown: people, farm animals, construction yards, outdoor storage, stacks of lumber, railcars on sidings, commercial signage. In short, squalor of any kind. Burleigh’s initial training as an engineer seems to have carried over as a minimalist house style emphasizing a town’s infrastructure. Bridges, fences, rail lines, and even windmills all make an appearance. His orderly world might have been very attractive to those commercial and civic leaders concerned with the town’s image, especially after the fires of 1891. The strongly prohibitionist Caledonia Advertiser often reported instances of public drunkenness as cautionary tales. Not long after the village incorporated in 1892, it passed new by-laws “to punish all rowdyism, disorderly conduct, etc.” Boys swimming without a suit during daytime now were to be fined five dollars; playing ball on the streets incurred a penalty of one dollar for each offense (CA 18 June 1891: 3). The bird’s eye view erased street-level mayhem so as to create a still moment in time and as such this decision may be considered a form of persuasive cartography, “maps intended primarily to influence opinions or beliefs—to send or reinforce messages—rather than to communicate objective geographic information” (Tyner; Mode). Bird’s eye views were flexible as to location and scale, yet in the aggregate Western New York communities begin to resemble each other.

The persuasion of bird’s eye views was mostly commercial in nature, both in their drawing / subscription / lithograph sales model, and in their promotional role for places like Caledonia: “These civic leaders, self-appointed or chosen from the local power structure, realized that every town must compete with regional rivals for supremacy in trade, manufacturing, and population. A handsome view served town boosters by helping to promote the city as a place to visit, live, or establish a business” (Reps, Bird’s Eye 15). It’s likely that some friendly arm-twisting was involved to bring most of the individual businesses into support for the project; it was the sort of thing that happened all the time in civic life. Maybe what’s new about the bird’s eye view was how its idealized world paralleled the explosive growth of imaginary spaces created by advertising, each world created by some new product of American industry. Although we now take such spaces for granted they were being constructed along with Caledonia’s village in 1892.

Sources Consulted

—“A Beautiful Birds Eye View of the Village” Caledonia Advertiser 31 Dec. 1891: 3.

Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection. Cornell University Library, Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections

—Reps, John W. Bird’s Eye Views: Historic Lithographs of North American Cities. Princeton Architectural Press, 1998

—Reps, John W. Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalog of Their Work, 1825-1925. University of Missouri Press, 1984.

— Tyner, Judith A. “Persuasive Cartography.” Journal of Geography 81 (1982): 140-44.