Friday, February 6, 2015

What You can Learn from an Old Map

I enjoy roaming through thrift stores because it is always a quest for the unknown; you never know what you will discover. Recently I found an amazing treasure at a thrift store. My husband and I were looking at some chairs and as I turned around, my eyes fell on a map that was matted on foam core. I love maps so I studied it for a few seconds before I recognized it was an old map of Amsterdam! The writing on it was not in English and although I have never been to Amsterdam I recognized it instantly. I first noticed the canals running in a c-shape throughout the town, old ships, houses of red roofs and windmills surrounding the outside of the city. I snatched it up for $2.99 – best deal ever!

I spent the next few days studying my map and becoming familiar with its origins. I also made some connections with facts I already knew about what Amsterdam was like in the 1600s. I learned Johannes Blaeu created the map in 1649. It is titled “Celeberrimi Hollandiae Emporii Delineatio Nova” which roughly translates to “New Delineation in Amsterdam, the Most Famous Port in Holland.” The mid 1600s were the Golden Age for the Dutch, they were successfully involved in world trade and Amsterdam was the leading trade city in Europe. Blaeu made the map to celebrate Dutch independence from Spain after the Eighty Year War and show the dominance of the Dutch’s position in world trade.

Blaeu’s map is oriented with southwest at the top, which is typical for the 1500 and 1600s. With this orientation. Amsterdam is drawn above the Ij Inlet, (labeled Ya Flavius) the waterway that gave the Dutch access to the entire world, and made Holland the most famous trading post at the time. The water on the map is filled with ships of all types; large ships line the docks of the Ij Inlet and the canals are filled with smaller sloops.

Johannes Blaeu and his family were all well known for their cartography skills.  Johannes’ father Willem was a Dutch cartographer, publisher, globe, and atlas maker. He gained his expertise of being a globe maker when he worked with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted Willem’s maps into the backgrounds of three of his paintings.

On Johannes’ map, the buildings of Amsterdam are tightly fit side-by-side, and covered by distinctive, maroon-red roofs. At the center of Amsterdam none of the houses have a yard. Further out from the center, many homes are without a yard but have access to a commons area. The land outside of town was for farming and divided into strips of land filled with various crops and animals.

The Amsel River runs through the center of Amsterdam and the map shows various sizes of ships, coming and going along this path. In the very center of town, the river is dammed and without canals. This area is home to the fish market and Henry Keyser’s Stock Exchange; it is covered with land and roadways instead of canals.

Around the outside of the city was a series of medieval walls in a zig-zag pattern. Inside each peak of the wall is a windmill. This system of walls and windmills was one way the Dutch fought to keep their land from being flooded. Windmills constantly pumped water out of the lowlands and back into the nearby rivers and inlets and kept land available for planting and homes.

So why does it even matter that I found an old map of Amsterdam from the 1600s? To me, it brings to life a time and a place that I have never been before. It allows me to see people living their daily lives along the streets and canals of Amsterdam more than 350 years ago. With this map I see little children sitting on the front stoop of their tidy houses waiting for a ship to come into the canal by their home. When one arrives, they excitedly jump up and down, and call their little friends to join them in the discovery, as goods from other parts of the world are unloaded.

I picture yards filled with trees and gardens, busy with activity. When the trees were loaded with fruit and the gardens filled with extra produce, families gathered the excess into baskets to bring to the market at the center of Amsterdam. I can guess that they sometimes trade their extra goods for a new painting or vase from a newly arrived ship; and these luxury items are brought home, enjoyed by all who enter the house - a unique idea for the time.

I imagine the borders of the city where windmills slowly turn keeping excess water on the outside edge of the dykes. These areas are home to families who are fishermen, and are also able to do the upkeep against the ever-encroaching water. They gather piles of long grass to put on top of the earthworks to keep the water of the Netherlands out of the farmlands and city. I visualize older children walking in their wooden shoes to bring a cloth sack filled with food to their father for his lunch. As they walk over the soggy land along the dyke, their feet do not sink because the shoes hold them up.

I see docks at the edge of the Ij Inlet lined with warehouses. During this time the Dutch East India Company bought items from all over the world, and because of the joint stock business model, they could buy more than they needed. The excess was then stored in warehouses until the demand increased for the items elsewhere in the world and they could be sold for a higher price.

The South American explorer, Alexander von Humbolt said, “The richness of your life, depends on what you are able to see.” Keep this in mind the next time you glance at a map, and take a deeper look. Dive into the details; allow the lines and labels to teach you about the people who lived out their lives there. Explore the map enough so you can understand the people who walked the paths of the map each day; places where they loved and lived and died.