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Learning New Things through Old Maps

Big map

This post started with a map. I wanted to take a look at how the Penn Medicine campus evolved over the years from an aerial perspective, and I stumbled across a real gem. You should click on it to see it full-size, but be warned: It’s huge.

It’s a very old map, though I’m not entirely sure how old. According to the New York Public Library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, it was drawn exactly 300 years ago — but there’s no year on the map itself aside from 1687, which was clearly scrawled along the bottom in pencil sometime well after the map was originally created.

It’s also quite possibly the best thing I’ve unearthed thus far in the myriad tangential searches I’ve performed while putting together my blog posts. Between its title — “A Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pensilvania in America, Divided into Countyes, Townships and Lotts” — to the small, adorable little details like the sketch of the City of Philadelphia (“two Miles in Length and one in Breadth”) in the top center and the smallest slice of what the mapmaker called “West New Jarsey” along the bottom, it’s a great little glimpse into the way things used to be.

“The way things used to be” has been a favorite topic of mine when writing for this blog, as evidenced in this post about the Philadelphia winter of 1764-1765, this post about how much medicine has changed in 250 years, and this post, which laments the demolition of a Penn building that hadn’t, at the time, been demolished yet.

In school, I found two subjects more frustrating than any other: math and history. Math was frustrating because I knew it was a critical skill but I had no real aptitude for it; history was frustrating because I knew it could be tremendously interesting if we weren’t so intent on making it boring. Math still eludes me with appalling regularity, but history is something I’ve since revisited time and time again in a bunch of different forms. On this particular day, I revisited it through maps.

I’ll spare you the rundown of all the different street layouts, land surveys, and topographical maps I scoured, because falling into that kind of Wikipedia/Google hole is the sort of thing that should be experienced organically — but for the sake of having something to show for all that browsing, here’s a small chunk of one map from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, depicting West Philadelphia in 1872:

Small map

The basic street layout looks plenty familiar, but there are plenty of differences you can spot without looking very hard at all, and in those differences are the nuggets of historical interest.

For example, that huge green area on the left: the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. It opened in 1841 under the direction of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a physician who believed — against the wisdom of many in his day — that the mentally ill could benefit from what was called the “moral treatment” approach and even, in some cases, be treated or cured. The facility would later become the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, which would ultimately close its doors in 1997 and see the behavioral health programs within it return to Pennsylvania Hospital’s 8th Street facilities.

The other, more prominent green area of the map houses Woodlands Cemetery and something referred to in the map as the “Alms House Grounds.” This was home to the Blockley Almshouse, a charity hospital that later became known as Philadelphia General Hospital (PGH). PGH closed in 1977, but on those grounds rose some of the country’s premiere health centers: Penn Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

These are just tiny snippets of the things I’ve learned about the history of Penn Medicine — and Philadelphia as a whole — since I came across that map at the beginning of this post. There’s plenty more, of course, but perhaps that’s for another time.

One final note that I think is worth mentioning: Between Penn Tower’s demolition and the completion of the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapeutics, Google Maps is going to find itself outdated fairly soon. I wonder what the blog posts 300 years from now will do with that.

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