The most impressive map of antebellum Washington, D.C.
Albert Boschke (1823-1910) was a German-born civil engineer who worked for the U.S. Coast Survey from around 1850 through the end of the Civil War. He served as both a draughtsman and field surveyor, held positions of increasing responsibility, and made valuable contributions to the charting of the harbors of Boston, Charleston, New York and other locales. Though a Federal employee, in the mid-1850s he undertook to map the District of Columbia as a commercial venture, with the hope of selling maps both privately and to the government. At his own expense he organized and employed a group of surveyors to do the fieldwork, though where possible he no doubt made use of existing Coast Survey data.
His efforts yielded two major maps: the mammoth, four-sheet map of Washington, D.C. published in 1857 and offered here, and a smaller but still impressive map of the District of Columbia that appeared in 1861. The Map of Washington City is executed at a large scale of 500 feet to the inch, and—befitting Boschke’s background at the Coast Survey—is both astonishingly detailed and by far the most accurate map of the national capital yet produced. Boschke documented the location and exterior plan of every public and private building, with each structure drawn from tape-line measurements made in the field. Roads were measured by two parties, one with transit and chain, the other with a level, while the hydrographic data in the Potomac is presumably based on the work of the Coast Survey. The map is surrounded by eighteen pictorial vignettes, including illustrations of landmarks such as the White House, Capitol, Treasury and National Observatory, as well as a portrait of George Washington and the Great Seal at top and bottom center respectively.
The Map of Washington City is very rare, and I know of only two other examples ever to have appeared on the antiquarian market (an inferior copy at Swann Galleries in 2015, and another in a 1958 dealer catalog). It is possible that fewer than ten are held in American institutions, with multiple examples are held by the Library of Congress and others known at the American Philosophical Society, Boston Public Library, District of Columbia Public Library, George Washington University (Albert H. Small Collection), and the University of Chicago, while at least one other example is held in a private collection.
One explanation for the rarity of the map may be its mammoth size, which would have rendered it particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time. Another is that despite its excellence it seems to have been a financial failure: Boschke’s 1857 petition to Congress inviting that body to purchase “a number of copies” was never acted on, and I find no mention of the map in the period press.
Yet another, more intriguing explanation of the map’s rarity is suggested by the fate of Boschke’s other great map, the 1861 Topographical Map of the District of Columbia. The latter map had been engraved by David McClelland and a few proof impressions made when, with war breaking out, the War Department seized the plates and maps lest copies fall into the hands of the Confederacy. A similar fate is known to have befallen C.E. Arnold’s 1862 Map of the Original District of Columbia and Environs, and it seems plausible that copies of Boschke’s Map of Washington City were likewise confiscated.
Bryan, Bibliography of the District of Columbia, p. 119. Miller, Washington in Maps, pp. 84-87. Phillips, Beginnings of Washington, pp. 59, 61. Phillips, Maps of America, p. 1021. Phillips, Maps and Views of Washington D.C., 185. OCLC 18166110, 18166164, 11211355 and 925599911. Some background on Boschke derived from the 1850-1866 annual reports of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey.
When found this map was on period linen, with some horizontal creases, minor stains and losses along the edges. It has been professionally conserved, the color retouched, and lined with modern replacement linen. Overall in remarkably good condition for a large wall map of the 19th-century.