The Joy of Old Maps

By Paul Scraton:

A love of maps is something that all of us share here at Elsewhere, and I suspect that goes for a good many of our readers as well. On a personal level, there is nothing I like more than sitting down with a collection of maps to plan a route or a journey. If is a place I have never been to before, it is a moment where imagination takes over as I attempt to picture the lie of the land or the streetscape I will soon be passing through. If it is a place I known well, the map will stimulate memories of previous travels and trips, or the everyday journeys from here to there when it was a different place, the place on the map, which I called home.

Something of a traditionalist, I prefer my maps on paper, although Amy Liptrot’s essay in Elsewhere No.02 that featured Google Maps as a stimulus to memory and imagination persuaded me that there can also be much value in exploration via a glowing screen. If it is a map of the here and now, I think it is the possibility that they represent that most appeals: Is that a footpath along that abandoned railway embankment? Is that a river in my neighbourhood, one that had somehow passed me by? What is in that patch of grey space in the edgelands of the city, between the residential districts and first of the farmed fields in the surrounding countryside? Maybe I should go and find out…

There is another subset of maps that have long fascinated me, and they are maps from the past. Whether found in second hand bookshops or reproduced and reprinted, old maps are a great starting point for anyone interested in understanding the history of a place. In Elsewhere No.04 we highlighted two projects that have old maps at their heart: the reproductions of city maps by Pharus here in Germany, and the London Trails walking tours by Ken Titmuss, using old maps as guiding documents. Inspired, we decided to launch the fourth edition of Elsewhere by taking a walk, following a route from Friedrichstraße station in the centre of Berlin to the Vagabund brewery in the old industrial district of Wedding. Using a Pharus map of the city from 1902, we attempted to bridge the gap between the Berlin on paper and what we could see with our own eyes.

The map offered us clues to the history of the city. The location of synagogues on the map suggested where the centre of the Jewish community in the early 20th century Berlin could be found. The market halls and bathhouses, theatres and factories, all diligently marked down, spoke to the everyday reality of life in the rapidly industrialising city in 1902. The destinations indicated for each of the main-line railway stations hinted at very different borders for the Germany of then and the Germany of now. Where the Vagabund brewery now stands, the streets are marked but not yet named, and in between them only an empty space. The map of 1902, with a good number of these planned but unbuilt neighbourhoods circling the city centre, showed us that the expansion of Berlin, laid out by James Hobrecht in 1861, was still very much a work in progress. 

As we walked a steady rain fell and the water on the ground shimmered under the streetlamps and headlights of the cars as darkness swallowed the city. In the half-light of an autumn evening we searched out the links between 1902 and now. The theatre still standing. The railway station. The market hall (now a supermarket). And we spotted what was missing: some of the synagogues, the bathhouses and a department store, huge factory complexes and a circus tent. As we walked we could also trace other moments in Berlin’s history, things that in 1902 were still to come. We walked by open spaces levelled by bombs that fell over 70 years ago. We crossed the path of the Berlin Wall. We finished up on a street that now had a name and was now lined with houses.

Old maps will only ever tell part of a story, but they offer up clues that help lead us to some of the fascinating tales of the city. They help us understand what was here before and provide us with a guiding document to imagine what has been lost. Indeed, all maps are – to some extent – “old”. From the moment they are finished they are immediately out of date. A new building erected here. An old one gone there. Streets re-routed and renamed. But in their inaccuracy, maps whatever their age are invaluable for those of us interested in the story of a place. 

Elsewhere No.04, with our map special featuring essays and interviews can be found on our online shop here. Elsewhere No.02, featuring Amy Liptrot’s essay ‘A (near future) Google Maps tour of the heart’ can be found here. For the historic map tours in London, offered by Ken Titmuss, visit London Trails website. You can search the archive of reprinted maps from Pharus via their online shop here.