Charles Varlé plan of Philadelphia (1796)

P[eter] C[harles] [aka Charles Peter] Varlé Geographer & Enginr. Del. / Scott Sculp., TO THE CITIZENS OF PHILADELPHIA THIS PLAN OF THE CITY AND ITS ENVIRONS Is respectfully dedicated By the Editor. Philadelphia, probably 1796.
Engraving and etching on laid paper with “BUDGEN” and fleur-de-lis watermarks, 17 5/8”h x 24 3/8”w plus good margins, full original color.

First edition of a important and very rare Federal-era plan of Philadelphia published by Charles Varlé in or around 1796.

When Varlé issued this plan Philadelphia was still the capital of the United States, pending the transfer to Washington, D.C. in 1800. It was the 2nd-largest city in the country with a vibrant and diversified economy and one of the nation’s busiest ports. The population was growing rapidly, from 28,500 in 1790 to more than 40,000 in 1800, despite the ravages of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

Varlés plan depicts the expanding city as well as the immediately surrounding rural areas. The city proper is shaded yellow, with built-up areas indicated by both cross-hatching and red shading (The shading clearly shows development extending north and south along the Delaware shore, rather than westward toward the Schuykill as originally intended by founder William Penn.) The street layout and street names are shown, with many of the latter alphabetically keyed to a long legend at upper left. In contrast to the five, symmetrically-arranged public squares on Penn’s original plan, only one large central square is shown, though in fact the five open spaces survive in the modern-day city. Outside the built-up areas individual residences and landmarks of particular note are indicated by small black symbols, some of which are identified by the legend at upper left. This legend also identifies dozens of landmarks and other centers of civic life. These include no fewer than 18 churches representing many denominations, a reflection of the city’s historically tolerant approach to religion; as well as the President’s House; the University; and the competing Banks of North America, the United States and Pennsylvania.

The plan’s visual appeal is enhanced by the crowd of vessels plying the Delaware River; a vignette at lower left of the City Hall, State House and Congress Hall; smaller views of the Free Library and Bank of the United States; the Directoire-style cartouche; and above all the early wash color, rarely found on American maps of the period. The style of the cartouche and dedication to the “Citizens of Philadelphia” suggest that Varlé was playing to the Republican sympathies of many in Philadelphia. For all of Varlé’s use of ornamentation and attention to detail, the plan’s slightly crude execution contrasts it with the more finely-rendered city plans produced by his contemporaries in Europe. This is particularly noticeable in the cartouche, which is slightly askew relative to the neat line and whose lettering in places is noticeably crowded.

Though the plan is undated, Wheat & Brun suggest publication “c. 1794,” arguing that “The city is shown as of about the date depicted by the Folie map of 1794, and earlier than the John Hills map of 1796.” However, it almost certainly appeared in 1796, as the first and only known advert appeared in the Philadelphia Gazette for June 25 of that year:

“Shortly will be Published, From actual Survey, A New Plan of the City & Environs of Philadelphia, Which comprises more than any extant, by the addition of three of the grandest public Edifices in the city, namely, The State House, Library, New Bank and above 150 rural villas and plantations in the environs. No expense has been spared to render it accurate and worthy the attention of the curious. Price to subscribers one dollar and fifty cents, to two dollars.”

In 1802 Varlé issued a second state of the map bearing that date, an extension of the city west of the Schuylkill, and 15 additional references.

Mapmaker Varlé
Ristow provides a brief biography of Varlé’s career through 1796:

“Charles P. Varlé was born in southern France around 1770. He received training in engineering in Toulouse and worked on several canal, turnpike, and bridge projects before the French Revolution induced him, like [fellow mapmaker A.P.] Folie to immigrate to Saint-Domingue. In Saint-Domingue he worked for M. de Vincents, chief engineer of the island until the slave revolt forced both Varlé and de Vincents to flee to the United States. Varlé settled in Philadelphia where, under the name Peter C. Varlé, he served as a private in the Fourth Company of the Third Regiment of the Philadelphia militia…. Varlé then obtained an appointment in the War Department through de Vincents… Varlé remained in government service only a short time, for he left to repair a canal on property owned by [Secretary of War Henry] Knox in Maine…. Upon returning to Philadelphia in 1796, Varlé conducted surveys for a map of that city.” (Ristow, American Maps and Mapmakers, pp. 250-252)

Charles Varlé published a number of other maps as well as books, the former including Baltimore (1833) as well as a map of Frederick, Berkeley & Jefferson Counties in Virginia (1810), and one of North America (1834). He also issued works on typhus and the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

Varlé’s plan of Philadelphia is rare: I know of impressions of the first state at the American Antiquarian Society (two copies), John Carter Brown, Chicago Historical Society, Hagley Museum and Library; Library Company of Philadelphia, Library of Congress (two copies), Massachusetts Historical Society, Newberry Library, Yale, the Bibliotheque nationale de France, and a private American collection. The second state is held by the American Antiquarian Society, American Philosophical Society, Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Winterthur, and the Universiteitsbibliothek Amsterdam, with another held by David Rumsey. I find record of only two other impressions have appeared on the market, both relatively recently: an uncolored copy, segmented and recently re-backed on tissue, sold for $15,600 at Bloomsbury’s 2008 sale of the Snider Collection; and a full-color copy (the color possibly original) sold for $41,400 at Swann in 2006.

NB: If not otherwise specified, the reference describes the 1st state of the plan. Bloomsbury Auctions, Jay T. Snider Collection (Nov. 19, 2008), #195. Deak, Picturing America, #200. Ristow, American Maps and Mapmakers, p. 252 (2nd state). Rumsey #5006 (2nd state). Smith & Vining, American Geographers, p. 215. Snyder, City of Independence, #167 and 167A (2nd state). Stokes, American Historical Prints, p. 83 (2nd state). Swann Galleries, 100 Rare & Important Maps & Atlases (March 30, 2006), #82. Wheat & Brun #465 (Chicago Historical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia and Yale only). OCLC 699494667 (Rumsey); 71259978 (Massachusetts Historical, Newberry); 71575808 (2nd state, Universiteit van Amsterdam); 71575840 (state not known, Universiteit van Amsterdam) 783435600 (Library of Congress); 79953816 (American Antiquarian Society, Hagley Museum & Library); 793032250 (no locations given); and (865062698 (2nd state, no locations given).


Minor mends along edges, with one tear extending perhaps 1” inside left neatline (now all-but invisible from recto). Greens oxidized and colors somewhat faded. Recently cleaned to reduce staining along left side.