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County atlases: Introduction

This guide introduces county atlases and provides information on related materials available at the David Rumsey Map Center.


County atlases are uniquely American phenomena.  These atlases were produced almost entirely by private enterprises. They are unique in showing the ownership of every land parcel in rural parts of a county. Planimetric view of the towns were included as well as natural features such as rivers and hills. Human-made features were included such as railways, roads, schools, and administrative boundaries. Drawings of the important buildings of a town, individual houses, and farms were included for a fee paid by the subscriber to the publication. Taken as a whole, these provide a detailed snapshot of much of the United States from about 1814 to the Great Depression with the “golden age” spanning the period from 1850 to 1880. County atlases were published between 1814 to 1925.

The county atlas genre took about 30 years to gain a more uniform and proper form, and then, about 1848 with the advent of lithography, began to flourish between 1855 and 1925. Geographic coverage across the country was not uniform.  There were two arms of the publisher: one, to produce the map, i.e. take existing data and conduct research, and the other was the sales arm.  Salespersons scoured the county signing up potential buyers and selling theme extra options from their name appearing on the map in larger or bolder type than their neighbor’s to lithographic views of property, biographies, and portraits for inclusion in the work. Funded by subscriptions that costed $10, these door-to-door ad campaigns and their additional offerings costed between an additional $10 to $50.

These atlases cataloged the distribution of and individual ownership of real property in an era of great population expansion and mobility, economic development and social change and are a treasure trove for historical research, even if the locations were not 100% accurate.

The image below is the View from Clarion County Atlas, 1877:  Residence & view of oil farm of A.R. Black situated in Beaver Twp near Elk City on the Emlenton & Shippenville R.R  which comes from Caldwell's Illustrated, Historical, Combination Atlas Of Clarion County, Pennsylvania.​​​​​​​

The first oil boom in the United States happened between 1859 and the early 1870’s in northwestern Pennsylvania. Clarion County was at the heart of this oil rush. In the year of 1891, Pennsylvania was supplying 58% of the nation’s oil. This 1877 view of the “oil farm” of A.R. Black shows a bucolic prosperous scene with clear skies and beautiful landscape amidst the picturesque oil wells. Highly romanticized, this prosperity was not destined to last. By 1907, Pennsylvania provided less than 10% of the nation’s oil as discoveries in Ohio, Texas, California, and Oklahoma quickly dominated the market.