There is an ancient game wherein a player throws a dart in a map and then dream of traveling to the place where the dart landed. You could have tried this game on an illustrated map if you were in Manhattan in the 1950’s. You could have ventured out to see the everyday wonders that are waiting for you.
More than 300 diversions from Manhattan’s southern tip up to 96th Street were sketched by New Jersey-born cartographer Nils Hansell. The map illustrations can be found on the cover of the book Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen Hornsby, geographer from the University of Maine.
The illustrated maps are colorful and flamboyant and not useful for navigation but they were the product of the advertising culture that trended during the middle of the 20th century. Hansell’s illustrated map was essentially selling the idea that Manhattan is the place to be. According to Hornsby, the illustrated map captured the borough’s buzz in the form of modern skyscrapers, the new United Nations Building, trans-Atlantic liners and the latest jet passenger planes.
The map’s annotations resemble an insider’s guide to the most rakish characters, showiest locations and least plausible lore of Manhattan. There were dragons in Chinatown, prancing fleas, ships inside green glass bottles and a nude opera singer raising a plate with a severed head.
The prancing fleas mean the old site of Hubert’s Museum where visitors used to watch Roy Heckler’s strangely enchanting trained fleas. Some of the spots in the pictorial map were only accessible to the affluent while others catered to those with limited income and inclination. Those who tried to look rich and powerful could strut around Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley promenade. Since several of the spots have disappeared over the years, the illustrated map is now considered a relic.
Today, you can commission an illustrated map for a business center, town, campus or a specific area. A moment in time will be captured and is guaranteed to be interesting to viewers. Map illustrators have the talent of highlighting architectural details and landmarks that a viewer can identify immediately.