Branding a Man, Branding a New Country: Abel Buell’s New and Correct Map of the United States of America, 1784

A guest post by Laura Macaluso

Preservation comes in all shapes and sizes. Adventures in Preservation focuses their partnership projects on buildings and historic sites both in the United States and across the globe, but heritage preservation also encompasses other forms of culture, such as archaeology, artwork, oral history, foodways, and landscape design, just to name a few. In other words, the practice of preservation is applied to all forms of culture and heritage, because all of these things need care and attention in order to survive and be useful to the present and future.

abel-buells-map-case

Library of Congress, North Great Hall Gallery, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building. Photograph by the author.

One example of a precious work of art and history preserved—in very fancy digs—is Abel Buell’s map of the eastern seaboard of North America, described by the Library of Congress as the first map compiled, printed, and copyrighted in a new country, called the United States of America, by an American. After seven years of war, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 between Great Britain and the revolutionaries made this so. Although today Abel Buell’s name doesn’t roll off anyone’s tongue, the display case built to preserve and showcase his map demonstrates its significance, and suggests that Buell deserves attention, not only for this hand-painted map—one of the first to show the “Stars and Stripes” (the flag)—but for his early American life, which could be the subject of a movie. How many other maps preserved in the Library of Congress were made by a man branded on the forehead for counterfeiting?

There are only seven known copies of this map and it only recently came to the Library of Congress—the largest library in the country, founded around a collection of books belonging to Thomas Jefferson—so the story of its preservation is also of note. When documents of “extraordinary significance” come to auction, these objects might be purchased by collectors for their private collections, never to be seen by scholars, let alone the public. But David Rubinstein, currently a leading figure in the preservation of early American history and material culture, purchased the map and placed it on view in the Library of Congress, which is located directly behind the United States Capitol building. Rubinstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group and a philanthropist, is helping to change the face of many historic sites, from Monticello to Montpelier to the National Mall, by giving millions of dollars towards renovation and preservation projects.

Abel Buell Map display case, Library of Congress, North Great Hall Gallery, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building. Photograph by the author.

Abel Buell Map display case, Library of Congress, North Great Hall Gallery, First Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building. Photograph by the author.

The primacy of the Buell map is seen when walking into the gallery—the map display case features the mapmaker’s name in large block letters lighted from behind and the case is placed at the head of the narrow Great Hall Gallery, which is itself heavily decorated with murals and inlays of marble. The Library of Congress describes the preservation of the Buell map and its “state-of-the-art” display case as: “This hermetically sealed, anoxic encasement was designed and constructed in collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to allow the Buell map to be placed on exhibit for an extended period of time. The encasement, tooled from a single block of aluminum and covered with hurricane-proof glass, enables tight control of the map’s environment, reducing its potential degradation by oxygen and moisture.” Purchasing the map cost Rubinstein 2.1 million USD, but there are high costs too, in the preservation of the map—this copy is considered in the best condition of all seven, but likely received a conservation treatment before being placed into the specially made case.

Rubinstein’s loan to the Library of Congress has made the map available for anyone to view and use in research—thanks to the digitization and online exhibit built around the map’s purchase—but it is also an indicator of just how hard it is for history museums to sustain themselves in the 21st century. The New Jersey Historical Society owned the map for more than a century before selling it via Christie’s in late 2010, in order to help pay down more than two million dollars in debt. The story of the organization’s debt and sale of collections is not unusual, replaying itself over and over across the United States in recent years. In this case, New Jersey’s loss is the public’s gain, albeit with the knowledge that everything comes with a price.

Benjamin Franklin (designer), Abel Buell (diesinker), Fugio copper cent, manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, 1787. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Benjamin Franklin (designer), Abel Buell (diesinker), Fugio copper cent, manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, 1787. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

The Abel Buell map became the centerpiece of the map exhibit, Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independent to Statehood, with early examples of state maps filling out the rest of the cases. In this presentation, details of map designs are noted, but the men behind these maps remain unknown. Although Abel Buell’s map gets top billing and his name appears in lights, Buell is in the shadows. Buell (1742-1825) lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut—a small port city with a balance of maritime trade, educational institutions and deep religious underpinnings. Buell’s map work was tied directly to his expansive entrepreneurial endeavors built on silversmithing skills learned as an apprentice. As a young man, Buell put these skills with metal plate and engravers tools to a foolhardy purpose: he was caught counterfeiting, and the punishment was branding, which was done at the top of his forehead. In addition, the top part of his right ear was chopped off (although he was then allowed to have it sewn back on). Despite this early calamity, Buell went on to create the dies (molds) for the country’s first copper cent, the Fugio, which was designed by Benjamin Franklin. Like many early American entrepreneurs at the beginning of the industrial revolution, he invented machines and tried his hand at a number of money-making ideas, but he died in the city’s almshouse.

Looking at the preservation history of one object, a map, allows us to travel back and forth across time. You can see Buell’s New Haven made map and many others from the earliest days of the United States in the online exhibit Mapping a Growing Nation: From Independence to Statehood.

 

Laura A. Macaluso, Ph.D. holds degrees in art history and the humanities from Southern Connecticut State University, Syracuse University in Italy and Salve Regina University. She has worked as a grants writer and curator in historic sites, museums, art, and park organizations. She held a Fulbright at the Swaziland National Museum in 2008-2009, and returned in 2010 under an Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation award from the State Department. She curated the exhibit “An Artist at War: Deane Keller, New Haven’s Monuments Man” and authored the accompanying article in Connecticut Explored magazine (Winter 2014-2015). Her newest book, New Haven in World War I (forthcoming from The History Press, 2017) was endorsed by the World War One Centennial Commission. 

About Adventures in Preservation

Huge fans of the world's architectural heritage, making it a point to seek out historic buildings wherever we travel. Bloggers include co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, a non-profit organizing historic preservation-based volunteer vacations, and AiP interns.
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