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Charming 19th-Century Atlases Were the Facebook of Their Day

County atlases from the late 1800s provide a fascinating—if idealized—look at life in rural America.

In 1865, a man named John L. Moore bought a farm near Quincy, Illinois, and built a tower on it that gave him a view of the countryside for 30 miles in every direction. He also built a wine house capable of storing 10,000 gallons. Moore called it Tower Place Farm, and according to a county atlas published in 1872: “The entire product of the farm is wine, which has made the name of Tower Place celebrated with all who love the pure juice of the grape.”

It’s amazing what you can learn from these county atlases, which were popular in large swaths of rural North America in the late 19th-century. Nominally the atlases were about property—who owned which parcel of land. But they turned into something rather different as publishers realized that people would pay to have a short biography or an artist’s rendering of their farm, family, or prize pig included for all their neighbors to see. It’s no wonder the atlases are featured by genealogy services like Ancestry.com as a resource for people trying to trace the roots of their families. (Read "How Advertisers Have Used Maps to Try to Sell You Stuff")

They became expressions of personal and civic pride, according to Michael Conzen, a professor of geography at the University of Chicago who’s written extensively about the atlases. Some atlases described how an area was first settled, which in many parts of Illinois was in the early 1800s, just a few decades before the atlases came out. These accounts gave residents an account—often a somewhat glorified one—of what they and their relatives had accomplished.

Conzen estimates that more than 5,000 pictorial atlases were produced during their heyday in the latter half of the 19th century.

The images in this post are from a single atlas of Montgomery County, Illinois, published in 1874 by Brink, McCormick & Co. Wesley Brink, who published under several company names, was known for some of the most picturesque atlases (winemaker John Moore’s Tower Place Farm appears in an atlas made by another prominent company, Andreas, Lyter & Co.).

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As one of the county’s most prominent citizens, General Jesse J. Phillips got a signed portrait on the title page of the atlas.

Around the same time that Moore was tending to his grapes in Quincy, a Civil War hero named Jesse J. Phillips moved back to his native town of Hillsboro, about 150 miles to the east in Montgomery County. Phillips fought bravely for the Union in the war (he had a horse shot out from under him no less than five times and he was shot twice himself) and achieved the rank of general. After the war, Phillips resumed his law practice and lived on a manicured estate. (Read "How Maps Became Deadly Innovations in WWI")

The biography of Phillips in Brink’s 1874 atlas of Montgomery county details his war exploits and suggests he was well-liked back home. “In social life the General is one of the most genial of men, his rare conversational powers and ready wit rendering his society ever pleasant and agreeable.” Indeed, years later, he served on the Illinois Supreme Court.

From the sounds of it, Phillips had some impressive neighbors. John H. Beatty was the president of the local bank (you can just catch a glimpse of it around the corner from the jewelry store on the bottom of the Fillmore township map below). ”He is known as ranking with the honorable, high-toned and trustworthy gentleman of Montgomery,” it says. Beatty also raised Shorthorn cattle and Poland China hogs on 440 acres outside of town (Fancy Boy and Lord Stanley, two of Beatty’s prized animals, are featured in the map at the bottom of this post). His stock barn is “likely the finest in the county,” the atlas says.

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A map of land holdings in Fillmore township in Montgomery County, Illinois, also includes sketches of two local businesses.

The personal virtues of residents is a common theme. Of the livestock trader James Milton Kelley, the atlas says: “He never was intoxicated; ‘threw a card’ in his life, or had a lawsuit—a good example to both children and neighbors.” Solomon Harkey, the tanner who owned the farm depicted at the top of this post, was evidently a religious man. “His walk before the world has ever been that of a thoroughly conscientious Christian,” the atlas says.

The images of neat farm houses and well-tended fields, in addition to the glowing biographies of county residents, paint a rosy picture of life in late 19th century rural America. In a way, the atlases were the Facebook of their day: people put their best selves forward and tended to sweep the ugly bits under the rug. You won’t get the whole story from these pages, but you’ll get the story of how people in these communities wanted to be seen and remembered. (Read "Historical Atlases Rescued from the Trash Could Be a Boon to Historians")

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Fancy Boy and Lord Stanley, prized cattle owned by John H. Beatty, are depicted in the top left corner of this sketch of Beatty’s farm from a 1874 atlas.