Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America indulged in a love affair with panoramic drawings of urban areas, known – aptly but simply­ – as town views. Some were drawn at ground level, or from a modest elevation (such as a hill or tall building) and often depicted a skyline. Others, made from an aerial perspective, were known as bal­loon views, aero views and, more com­monly, bird’s-eye views. These drawings were made from an imaginary oblique perspective, about two to three thousand feet in the air, as if a bird were flying high above, looking down on the land­scape. These images offered much more detail than a ground perspective: build­ings and structures hidden behind others could now be easily seen, and street patterns, or grids, became more dis­cernible. Although scale was exaggerat­ed, the views were executed with amazing accuracy and attention to detail, down to the number of windows and doors on each building. The images were mass produced, usually by lithography, and sold by subscription, often to local entrepreneurs eager to have their place of business prominently depicted. Found on the walls of Victorian era houses and shops as an expression of both domestic and civic pride, these portraits of thou­sands of towns across North America were made by dozens of artists. Today, each bird’s-eye view is not only cher­ished as a work of art, but studied as a precious source of information about how a community actually appeared at a given point in time.

Pennsylvania is blessed with a record number of bird’s-eye views, most of which were created by Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler (1842-1922), hailed as “the most prolific of all American city viewmakers.” Of his more than four hun­dred views of United States communi­ties, more than half – at least two hun­dred and forty – depict cities, boroughs, villages, even a college campus, in the Keystone State.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Fowler began his career as a tin-typist, photographing soldiers in army camps during the Civil War. In 1864, he went to work for his uncle, John Mortimer Fowler, a Madison, Wisconsin, photogra­pher. He later became associated with Albert Ruger (1828-1899), a Chicago town view artist, probably as a sales and subscription agent. For Ruger, Fowler traveled about the country, especially in the Midwest, during the post-Civil War years, soliciting subscriptions from busi­ness leaders for views of their communi­ties. Between 1869 and 1875, Fowler worked in partnership with Howard Heston Bailey (1836-1878), and later his brother Oakley Hoopes Bailey (1843-1947), sketching and publishing views of towns in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York. Fowler executed his earliest Pennsyl­vania works during this time, including 1872 views of Altoona and Lebanon.

In 1875, Fowler married Elizabeth Anna Dann of Madison and the follow­ing year struck out on his own as an independent view maker. He moved in 1880 to New Jersey, probably to exploit the Northeast’s market for bird’s-eye views, because Ruger and his contempo­raries dominated the Midwest. After several moves, Fowler and his young family finally settled in Morrisville, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1885. Because the occupation of town view artist required extensive travel, Morris­ville became Fowler’s base of operations.

Beginning in 1887 and continuing until about 1906, Fowler concentrated on commissions for views of Pennsylvania communities, although he is also known to have depicted towns in Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Maryland. On many views published during these years, and up until his death, Fowler was listed as co-publisher with entrepre­neur James B. Moyer of Myerstown, Lebanon County.

T. M. Fowler’s method of enlisting subscribers, drawing his views, and publishing them was essentially the same as for any such artist. Advertisements announcing his arrival would usually be placed in local news­papers. He would stay at a nearby hotel or boarding house and meet with local businessmen to invest in the project. A subscription would ensure a business a prominent place or, perhaps, even a vignette inserted in the border of the completed view. Once adequate capital was obtained, the artist would then walk the streets, noting and sketching build­ings, streets, parks, and distinctive fea­tures – such as fountains, covered bridges, and ponds – as accurately as possible. (Fowler’s descendants still prize his drawing instruments, folded in a leather case, containing his parallelo­gram, folding ruler, magnifying glass and other tools to aid him in this precise work.) An artist would spend his typical days gathering information, while his evenings were devoted to perfecting the overall drawing, most often a pen or pencil sketch, enhanced later with ink wash. Fowler’s eye for detail and his patience with this painstaking work is best evidenced by his original rendering of Belle Vernon, Fayette County, now safeguarded by the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg. People, animals, even a coal barge floating on the Monongahela River are clearly delineat­ed by a razor sharp pencil, yet the entire work measures only fifteen by twenty­-five inches!

Finally, the artist would then turn over his work to a lithographer, who prepared the published version. The print would often be put through a press twice, the second time to add a hint of color, usually a light gray or green cast, to highlight fields and forests. The number of images printed would vary, depending on the number of subscribers, but five hundred pieces probably consti­tuted an average print run. The cost of a town view ranged between two and five dollars.

With promise of a commission from one community, or with a successfully completed view in hand, Fowler would then visit neighboring towns and boroughs to convince their citizens that it was a matter of community pri.de to have one prepared for them as well. It was a tactic that worked well for acquir­ing new business. He would spend sev­eral years working in one region of the Commonwealth to minimize travel expenses. The time spent in an area depended, naturally, upon the number and size of the communities. Over the course of about twenty years, T. M. Fowler traveled throughout the Keystone State, making views of all major cities (except Philadelphia) and dozens of smaller boroughs and villages. He spent much of the early 1890s in northwestern Pennsylvania, drawing Bradford, Clarion, Ford City, DuBois, Ellwood City, and Clearfield, among others. By 1894, he was in the southern counties, drawing Jeannette, Irwin, Turtle Creek, and Oakmont. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked in southwest­ern Pennsylvania, rendering Belle Vernon, Brownsville, California, Glassport, Homestead, Monongahela City, and Pittsburgh.

Even for an experienced traveler, vis­iting a new city could be somewhat har­rowing. In 1918, at the height of American involvement in World War I, Fowler, busily preparing a depiction of Allentown, was observed by citizens making detailed sketches of the Lehigh County seat’s streets, factories, and industrial features. He was accused of being a German spy and immediately arrested. It took much persuasion by the artist’s family to assure local authorities that Fowler was not onJy a loyal Amer­ican but a Civil War veteran as well. Fowler apparently never published his Allentown view, for only a proof copy of it exists today at the Library of Congress.

By World War I, interest in bird’s-eye views had waned, due most likely to changing taste in home decoration and to the halftone printing process, which, although faster and cheaper than lithog­raphy, created a less sharp image. The airplane, coupled with aerial photogra­phy which afforded a vantage point an artist could once only imagine, probably sealed the fate of the bird’s-eye view and heralded its demise.

Today, the value of bird’s-eye views is immeasurable. Images are studied for information about period architectural styles, settlement and growth patterns, local industries, and land use and devel­opment. They are also appreciated as works of art. Students and scholars of Pennsylvania history are, indeed, fortu­nate that more bird’s-eye views were executed of towns and boroughs in this state than any other, thanks to T. M. Fowler. He was one of the few who still continued the trade, drawing and selling into his eightieth year. In 1922, while at work on yet another view, he slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk in 35 Middletown, New York. He never recov­ered from the accident and died on March 17. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey.

Toward the end of his life, in a letter to a relative, Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler expressed “unadulterated joy” in mak­ing his celebrated views, a joy that each of his works still conveys to this day.


For Further Reading

Comstock, Helen. American Lithographs of the Nineteenth Century. New York: M. Barrows and Company, 1950.

Hebert, John R., and Patrick E. Dempsey, comps. Panoramic Maps of Anglo-American Cities: A Checklist of Maps in the Collections of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Washington: Library of Congress, 1983.

O’Connor, John C., and Ralph M. Yeager. Pennsylvania Prints from the Collection of John C. O’Connor and Ralph M. Yeager: Lithographs, Engravings, Aquatints and Watercolors from the Tavern Restaurant. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, 1980.

Reps, John W. Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalog of Their Work, 1825-1925. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.

Simonetti, Martha L. Descriptive List of the Map Collection in the Pennsylvania State Archives. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976.

Stout, Leon J. “Checklist of Pennsylvania Town Views.” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 58 (July 1975, October 1975, January 1976).


The editor and author wish to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Scott E. Kriner of Conestoga, Lancaster County, in pho­tographing the bird’s-eye views selected from the holdings of the Pennsylvania State Archives which illustrate this article.


Linda A. Ries, a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University, joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1979. She is currently head of the processing section of the Pennsylvania State Archives, which con­tains the single largest collection – other than that of the Library of Congress – of views of Pennsylvania by Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler. Her previous contribution to Pennsylvania Heritage was devoted to the life and career of aerial photographer Samuel W. Kuhnert (see “With a Camera in the Sky: Samuel W. Kuhnert, Aerial Photographer,” by Linda A. Ries and James R. Mitchell in the summer 1986 edition). She is also the author of the award-winning Guide to Photographs at the Pennsylvania State Archives, published by the PHMC in 1993.