Representation of Security, Faith, and Finance in 17th Century Philadelphia
I began searching for a historical visualization for this assignment by looking at early maps of Mexico, which were well known for their incorporation of Spanish cities with the locations of indigenous people. Exploring these maps led me to stumble upon a story of mapping on the east coast of North America, where Philadelphia became the first pre-planned American city. The design of this map is not only a highly original production, but it is tightly integrated with the rhetorical issues of William Penn who was seeking to obtain funds from investors who would be willing to live in this new city. The 1683 map drawn by Penn’s proprietor Thomas Holme became visual design steeped in issues of investment, security, religion, and freedom—a perfect document to consider the rhetorical contexts of visual design.
The Gridding of a City
The first map is a 1683 rendering of Philadelphia developed by Thomas Holme for William Penn. This map breaks the usual city planning conventions as it is the first example of a city that was planned prior to construction, and uses a N/S-E/W grid system which was developed in response to the 17th century disease and fires that proved difficult in escaping in un-planned cities of Europe. Seeing no real plan for evacuation of a city, and the destruction caused by house too close together, Holme and Penn developed their plan for the city around the country estate model that placed in an urban environment large country houses with distance (and yards) between each of the buildings.
Communicating with Investors
Another innovation of the grid was that it allowed investors back in Europe to see the placement of their purchased plots within the gird system. This communicated to plot-owners who had never visited the country that their investment was “plotted” out and ready for them to inhabit. Plots within the city were granted on the basis of larger tracts outside the city such as manors, farms, plantations, liberty lands and townships. Owners of these areas outside the city were granted plots within the city to inhabit as a more “civilized” place of dwelling. Later maps that extended the view to the suburban locations of the estates purchased, tricked investors by changing the map scale. What looked like four English miles was actually thirty miles away from the city center.
William Penn made slight changes to Holmes 1683 map when he included it with a promotional pamphlet trying to draw more investors to the city. The new map made slight changes by removing much of the tree and hill imagery on the outskirts of the city and replacing it with text. This presented the city in a more isolated and contained perspective that help broadcast a sense of security. The new map also broadened drawings of streams and tributaries, and made the Schuylkill River seem closer in size to the Delaware River.
The 1683 map features four squares in each respective corner of the city. The purpose of these squares was 1) to draw a comparison to the “Moorefields” of London which were parks available for all to enjoy; and 2) to capture Penn’s and other Quaker’s ideals that well-ordered and peaceful living created an awareness of moral-discipline for citizens. These squares communicate to wary investors that Philadelphia will be similar to London, but will provide better opportunity for wealth and prosperity than might be available in London at the time. It also provided a sense of excitement for those Quakers, Protestants, and Catholics seeking religious refuge than the colony would not be a place of savagery, but a place of tolerance and peace. The fascinating reality behind this is that at the time this map was circulating with investors there was no real city gridded yet. This map was merely an Idea that Holme and Penn developed.
Another interesting element of the map is that is has no latitude, longitude, or scale. The only traditional elements of the “map” are the cardinal direction key and the title. Unlike the typical cartographic convention of orienting the design with true north facing directly up, this map uses the city grid as the “centering” element to the map. This helps viewers ignore the surrounding “wilds” and concentrate on the “civil,” “ordered,” and “Europe-like” security of the city.
The inclusion of both the Schuylkill River to the west and the Delaware River to the east play important roles on communicating a sense of security to investors. This strategic positioning of the city helps broadcast to investors a sense of readily available exits to the wild country. The drawing of large European vessels in both rivers indicates their navigability, and helps communicate that moving to Philadelphia is not a cutting-off from the outside world of commerce and security.
A Conversation with Visual Rhetoric
Putting Holme’s and Penn’s original design of Philadelphia into play with our visual rhetoric readings seems to go against Tufte’s assertion that, “”The fundamental principles of analytical design apply broadly, and are indifferent to language, or culture, or century or the technology of information display.” On Tufte’s website he furthers this view by stating that, “The purpose of analytical displays of information is to assist thinking about evidence.”
Tufte wants to place analytical design outside of language and culture because he wants to believe that there is an “essence” to this type of design. This is evident through his use of the word “fundamental principles” which works to develop this sense of design that is a universal truth, a law of nature, if you will. Because Tufte wants to view these principles as a sort of natural law, he effectively tries to make them beyond the human. They are basal, and thus are not subject to the whims of human language and culture. Yet, Tufte’s assertion that the purpose behind these displays is to “assist thinking” acknowledges that design is ultimately a communicative act. This exposes an error in Tufte’s thinking because he wants to place what he views to be an essentially communicative act beyond the influence of language, culture, and time. The only way to do this would be to maintain the modernist belief that language is post-thought, and to ignore the hermeneutical processes that make thought itself a rhetorical construction. Whether intentional or not, Holme’s decision to construct the Philadelphia grid in a central-style, with its four community squares, property listings, and clear emphasis on the rivers to frame the city is intimately tied to issues of distance, security, religion, disease, pressures from his boss, etc. Factors such as these are not extraneous to the design principles of the map and the city—they are all part of the rhetorical process of thinking itself.
In Kostlenick and Hasset’s discussion of the mutability of conventions we see this very idea in play. The inclusion of cutaways in 17th century visual design is not a “fundamental principle” that has always been present, but a principle uniquely interwoven to the increasing Enlightenment obsession with mechanical invention.
The mutability occurs because the once interwoven principle becomes ubiquitous, and thus seems to be the sort of fundamental universal principle that Tufte describes. If we look to contemporary maps of towns and cities developed after Philadelphia it might seem obvious that there would be a degree of planning prior to construction of the city. It seems obvious that the city would be gridded in a way that makes navigation easy, and incorporates centralized town parks and squares. It seems obvious that a city map would include the main watercourses that support it and make it a strategically secure location.
This rift between Tufte’s view and Kostelnick and Hasset’s view seems to get to a central concern for Rhetoric. There is still a haunting modern conception of language that describes it as a mere communicative act detached from the inventive thought process that language is supposed to communicate. If Tufte’s view is indicative of technical and analytical designers in the field, I wonder how we can use Visual Rhetoric to begin to undo some of these modernist conceptions of language?