In 1874, Richard Compton, a sheet music publisher from the St. Louis area, hatched a large-scale plan to promote the city he called home. He was attempting to capitalize on an artistic trend in which cities across the United States were engaging. He recruited Camille Dry, an artist who specialized in pictorial maps.
By the late 19th century, every city that was a city had one, a map that highlighted (and exaggerated) its finer qualities. The details of these maps were stunning. Every street, every building, even many windows accounted for, they were designed to attract industry and promote trade.
St Louis needed the boost. Its central location and close proximity to the Mississippi River had caused it to boom, but Chicago was booming at a faster clip. Just four years before Dry began his sketches, St. Louis had been embroiled in a scandal over the bribing of census takers to overinflate its population. (Inflate-gate?)
And so the plan was hatched. The artist responsible for producing pictorial maps of eight cities in five different states in 1871 and 1872, took to a hot air balloon (rumor has it anyway), tethered to the East side, and in about a year (probably working with a team), drew a map the likes of which the world had never seen.
Larger and more detailed than any pictorial map then or since, Dry’s work consists of 110 separate drawings, each about 11 x 14 inches in size, that when laid out, cover an area 24 feet long and 8 feet high. Because folding such a map would probably prove challenging, Compton published it, along with 112 pages of business listings, as a book titled Pictorial St. Louis: The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, a Topographical Survey Drawn in Perspective A.D. 1875.
With a whopping price tag of $25 dollars (which in today’s money is quite a bit more than you’d shell out for your average convenience store road map), and a cumbersome title that didn’t yield great search results on Amazon, the project was a financial flop.
But this beautiful map remains as a point of pride for the city it depicts. Since last May, the Missouri History Museum, located in St. Louis’s Forest Park, has featured an exhibit entitled “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis.” The map has been blown up to 10 feet x 30 feet panels, showing exquisite details like the tents of a visiting circus, a man driving a herd of cows through the city streets, and a mob making a run on a local bank.
Interspersed with the map are the stories of the lives of St. Louisans in 1875, including the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and the parasites they ingested in their drinking water. The special exhibit will be open through February 14, and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t get there until time had almost run out. But I’m glad I saw it.
What impressed me the most was that while other cities used their beautiful maps to gloss over their warts, exaggerating and sometimes out-and-out lying to prospective businessmen and settlers in order to lure them in, Compton and Dry took a different approach. The warts are shining brightly on this map. St. Louis wasn’t a perfect Utopia in 1875 and I would never suggest that it is now.
But like Richard Compton, I love my city. I know we’ve had some problems. Race relations are tense, crime has crept up, and I hear some football team chose to leave us for LA (a city that in 1875, barely took up one page of map). The press has been unforgiving. Still, St. Louis is an amazing place with a lot to offer and I’m proud to call it home.
So here’s my idea. What the city of St. Louis needs to do is promote itself in a medium people can respect. We need to jump on the biggest trend to sweep across this great nation since the pictorial map craze of the 19th century and show off not just our warts, but also everything that is amazing about our city.
That’s right. What we need is a St. Louis-themed adult coloring book. A really, really big one.