John Carwitham and his Map of Boston Through Time

My focus in this project was conducting deeper research into our specific cartographers and maps. Contextualizing the works within their space and time adds another dimension of analysis and comprehension in teasing out the map arguments and choices. This blog post is about tracking John Carwitham, the engraver for the Boston map, through time and the map itself, “A south east view of the great town of Boston in New England in America”. In this research my goal was to find information about both the cartographer and the map itself that allowed for a better comprehension of the physical and historical context of the map.

Tracking down Carwitham through time was not an easy task, he has many popular art pieces, specifically his engravings of American cities but there is little information about him. I started very broadly, the first thing I did was Google his name. This was a really important step because not only did it show his most popular works and the type of narratives associated to them but also if there were any conflicts with his name. As in, are there other people that hold the same name that could skew my research? I was able to find that the bulk of his popular work are different views of New York and Boston in the 1730s and a couple art pieces Britain, notably “Heavenly Scene with the Gods of Olympus Surrounding a Chess Board, Poseidon and Pan Below”. This indicated to me that his work was varied, and he likely engaged with different areas of interest such as fine arts and cartography. Finally, I found no conflicting names, which was a relief.

After the Google search, I went forward by searching the bigger libraries, Duke Library and JSTOR, the bulk of information I found was there. I quickly realized that any reference to Carwitham was within text discussing greater topics or presented one of his pieces as references to exemplify a greater point. Regardless, I kept track of the sources, it felt very chaotic though, like I was being given bits and pieces of a story but nothing concrete, just dots of his existence on a timeline. This was frustrating because clearly, I was finding resources, so information exists, but it’s all so spread out that it was very difficult to coherently visualize or comprehend where I stood within the research. It seemed that any direction I took it was random whether I would fall on something that broke the research open, or just a complete dead end.

The supervisor for my research shared a resource for dissertations, saying that sometimes the hyper niche topics can come in useful. In my case, it was very useful. I was able to find a dissertation almost only about John Carwitham, it discussed his book on floor designs in the English homes, “Floor Decorations Represented Both in Plans and Perspective Being Useful Designs for Ornamenting the Floors of Halls, Rooms, Summer Houses”. This thesis, “Swept Under the Rug: The use, Representation, & Manufacture of Floorcloths in Early America.”, by Shannon Tate Gray, describes how influential Carwitham work was in setting home floor style trends in America.

I was shocked, Carwitham had published a book, and it had taken me hours of research to find it, this was a turning point in my research where in finding a single source that delved into his work, I was able to find much more. This book was also published in London in 1739, the final work I was able to find in America dates of 1737, it’s of the Staten Island marshes (The ancient Staten Island marshes). The next work I was able to track down from him was a leaflet about Rhinoceros Published in London in 1739 (Pamphlet A Natural History of Four‐Footed Animals: Of the Rhinoceros).

In keeping track of his works appearances through time I was able to place Carwitham in America from 1730 to 1737, then back in London from 1739 to 1741. His map of Boston is dated from 1730-1770, through the timeline of his work, it seems his work in the America is focused during the 1730s, for this reason I would narrow down the date of publication to that period.

With regards to the map itself, the research was similar but much shorter lived. I was able to find two separate sources that pin down the whereabout of the map in time. The map itself was published in London in the 1730s, the map resurfaced in 1929 when it was found by researchers at the Bodleian Library at Oxford (The William and Mary QuarterlyVol. 51, No. 3, Mid-Atlantic Perspectives (Jul., 1994), pp. 572-574).

In further researching “A south east view of the great town of Boston in New England in America”, I was also able to fine a reference to the map in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society Third Series, Vol. 99 (1987), pp. 187-206 ). This Proceedings dated from 1987, so they were quite recent, nevertheless, the source tracks down this exact map as a gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society from a man named John P. Ayer. The Ayer family is a prominent family in Boston, they own a house in Boston “Federick Ayer Mansion” which is National Historic Landmark (National Register of Historic Places, Massachusetts- Suffolk County). It is possible that when the map was discovered in 1929 it was shipped to the United States where the Ayer family acquired it and in 1987 donated it.

This work has been very interesting within the greater context of the project. Understanding who the cartographers were as people gives the project a personal dimension. Specifically, when the information is not readily available, it’s almost like building a personal relationship. I really enjoyed this process. With regards to the difficulty in accessing information, I think that speaks to the lack of focused research on Carwitham as a person specifically, it takes one person to provide accessible information and from there more information will come to light.