Our next map is an unusual, small city plan of Washington, D.C., from an unidentified German publication, entitled Grundiss von Washington der neuen Hauptstadt der vereingten Staaten von Nord-America. An engraving, the map shows significant detail of the city—the Potomac River, the Capitol and White House, Rock Creek, and Georgetown are all featured. The artist of this map is Andrew Ellicott, an established cartographer and surveyor. On January 24, 1791, President George Washington announced the congressionally-designated permanent location of the national capitol, a diamond-shaped ten mile tract at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch Rivers. From 1791 to 1792, at the request of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Ellicott worked to survey the boundaries of the federal Territory of Columbia, later established as the District of Columbia in 1801.
His survey team was comprised of himself, freed slave and astronomer Benjamin Banneker, and later his brother Joseph Ellicott. They worked to place forty boundary stones, a mile apart, to mark the borders for the Territory of Columbia. Many of these stones remain standing today, scattered throughout the city’s border. Starting with Virginia’s stones in 1791 and finishing Maryland’s stones in 1792, the stones represented the boundary lines for the 100 square foot territory. During this time, Ellicott also intensively surveyed the land at the center of the territory, the area designated to be the future city of Washington. He worked with the Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who had prepared the original plans for the city in 1791. L’Enfant proved to be quite obstinate, and it was on these grounds that he was fired, and replaced by Ellicott.
Ellicott revised L’Enfant’s plan of the city, much to L’Enfant’s dismay and disapproval, realigning and straightening Massachusetts Avenue, removing several plazas and short radial avenues. He also altered the borders of the future Judiciary Square. Ellicott’s revisions became the basis for the capital city’s future development. He gave a copy of the city plans to James Thakara and John Valance of Philadelphia to engrave, print and publish. Receiving wide circulation, the city plan was later copied, enlarged, detailed, and published by numerous different publishing houses.
Our print of the city plan is a copper-plate engraving, a technique first used circa 1430 in upper Germany. Copperplate engraving is a process of intaglio printmaking, which entails incising a design on a hard surface. The surface of a copper plate is smoothed before engraving and coated with a thin layer of varnish, chalk, soot or wax. The drawing is done, in mirror-image, on this layer. Subsequently, the lines are incised into the metal with a graver or burin. Metal shavings are removed, as are the ridges thrown up on both sides of the incised furrows. Before printing takes place, the plate is heated and covered with ink. The warm ink seeps into the finest of depressions and fills the lines and textures of the drawing. The copper plate is cleaned and then pressed on to moistened paper, which soaks up the ink from the depressions in the plate. The copperplate-engraving technique is very exacting, time-consuming and arduous for the engraver.
Characteristic features of copperplate engravings are fine lines, richness of detail, and soft contrasts (unlike the woodcut); nevertheless, there are no actual gradations of tone. Viewing the compass rose in the upper corner of our map with a magnifying glass reveals that the lines begin as fine as a hair, then swell, only to become thin again, creating the contrasting shades of the star. The directionality of the lines is just as important in engraving, as evident in this map’s depiction of the Potomac. The carefully placed lines give the Potomac life, movement, and a flow. The lines even hint at water depth and boating channels. The city itself is a fantastic reflection of what still exists today. Moreover, Ellicott’s use of scripted text and white space results in a handsomely graphic composition. The District’s iconic grid layout shines in this beautifully clear and simple city plan.
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