GeoHistory Resources

Philadelphia Streets Department

Philadelphia Streets Department Surveys


Brief Introduction

The Streets Department Collection presented here is the culmination of nine years of work by a number of people interested in preserving these unique and information rich documents. Close to 3,000 plans, if taken as a whole, provide a view of the city deeper than available in regularly-available printed atlases and maps. Anyone interested in just about any aspect of Philadelphia’s built environment or history of landscape changes will find a wealth of information in this collection. To search the index, click here.


During the last decade, those interested in Philadelphia’s topographical evolution over the last two centuries found themselves with an unprecedented wealth of materials immediately at hand in the form of digitized maps and atlases available over the web -- especially those provided on-line by the Philadelphia GeoHistory Project, by the Free Library of Philadelphia, and by several national digital repositories. What are often called ‘ward atlases’ or ‘fire insurance atlases’ (or sometimes simply ‘Sanborns,’ as a generic but inaccurate label) offered very detailed and comprehensive coverage of parts of the city beginning with the Hexamer & Locher’s seven-volume series of 1858-60. The coverage offered by these started with the city’s old core and moved outward to its edges by the 1880s. They quite accurately represented building footprints and lots drawn to scale, and often offered color and symbol codes that reflected materials, usage, and nearby services.

But these rich new digital resources left the period before the 1850s in deep shadow; one sorely missed such topographical documentation, of both buildings and landscapes, from the decades before Hexamer & Locher’s project. Prior published maps of the city and its sections usually took the form of single sheets at smaller scales rather than the large multi-sheet folios that were to come, and they were far less detailed.

It soon started to become clear, though, that there was a whole complementary category of thousands of maps, in the form of large manuscript land surveys drawn to scale and dating between the late 18th century and the mid-19th century. These existed in several collections, some reflecting governmental initiatives and some private ones, and often adopted a well-bounded part of the city that usually would amount to dozens of city blocks in vivid watercolor on large rolled sheets. They tended to record five different kinds of information: a) the shapes formed by roads, watercourses, and the land between them; b) ownership of land; c) footprints of buildings; d) contemplated changes, such as new roads or drainage systems, and planned development schemes; and e) authorizations or purpose for devising each drawing.

Not coincidentally, these subjects mapped remarkably well with the interests of about a half-dozen folks (listed in the Thanks section) excited by the remarkable boon they offered to our early knowledge of these evolving landscapes. These exist in several clusters in different collections and repositories, but our little team initially addressed itself to the oldest surveys among the files of the Philadelphia Streets Department, and between 2009 and 2012 we catalogued and photographed or scanned about 300 of these. Realizing the importance of these documents, the Streets Department came up with money to have them scanned at high resolution, at the Athenaeum’s Regional Digital Imaging Center. And after the initial group of volunteers returned to their paying jobs, Adam Levine (supported by the Philadelphia Water Department) continued searching out, cataloging, and scanning several thousand more plans on his own.

Identifier Explanation

Various lettered prefixes and suffixes in each plan’s unique identifier indicate various groups of plans in the collection. These include:

HP (Historic Plan). These are some of the oldest plans in the City Plans collection, with one original dating to the 1780s, and hundreds of others from the first half of the 19th century. The numbers of these plans do not correspond to any of the current City Plan areas, although old index maps have been found that include them. Most of these are "mounted plans," with the plan drawn on paper that has been mounted on a cloth backing. Many are in remarkably good condition considering their age. Almost all of these plans are now stored and inventoried at Philadelphia City Archives.

MTD (Mounted Plan) tubes, with numbers corresponding to the current City Plan areas. These plans are still consulted occasionally by City Plans Unit staff. Some of the oldest of these plans, where duplicates were available, are also stored at Philadelphia City Archives.

CP (City Plan) tubes, with numbers corresponding to current City Plan areas, are still used constantly by the Streets staff. Most of these plans are either blueprints, photocopies, or "tracings" - original plans or copies of old plans, drawn in ink on a wax-impregnated linen that is extremely durable.

RC (Red Can) tubes, including many railroad and street railway plans, and other plans that are not official City Plans.

JP (Jury Plans), provided to "Road Juries" or "Boards of View," groups of citizens impaneled to determine the damages to be awarded to property owners (or benefits to be assessed against them) for the construction of new streets, sewers and other public works through their property.

FF (Flat Files), with plans grouped by geography or by other criteria.

FLAT, small mounted plans called "flats," because they have been stored flat rather than rolled with other plans in the tubes.

RRSF, Road Records Search Files in the central City Plans office.

SD (Survey District), indicating plans found in one of the subsidiary District offices located in various parts of the city; the number following the letters indicates the specific office. Each of these offices have different filing systems, so the numbering and naming of these plans varies.

Field Explanations

Physical format is the height x width, in inches, of the original object. Most numbers are rounded to the nearest inch.

Scale is given where it was noted on the plan or could be easily determined.

Work Title has been transcribed from the plan, with the sometimes archaic or irregular capitalization regularized. Where a plan has no title, this is noted, and a description is provided.

Date is ideally the year the map was drawn. The clearest indication of this is the survey return date; or when the authorization of the plan and its approval occur within the same year. When this information is not provided, the approval date has been used, or an approximate (“circa”) year has been used. Many titles include various dates, including the plan's authorization (most often a resolution or ordinance of the City Councils, or an Act of Assembly from the Pennsylvania Legislature); and its approval (most commonly by confirmation of the City Board of Surveyors). Some plans also include the date of approval of this or other municipal Boards and then confirmation by the County Court of Quarter Sessions.

Area is provided for most plans, including township or ward where applicable, and sometimes the streets by which the plan is bounded.

Creator or Surveyor is the City official who signed the plan, or where the information is available, the draftsman who drew the plan.

Map Features include a variety of keywords that can be searched. The level of detail provided varies, and it can be assumed that all the maps have more information than listed here.


The Regional Digital Imaging Center of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia scanned hundreds of plans using their Cruse Scanner, with a magnetic flat bed 48 x 72 inches holding the plan while the camera passes overhead. Plans larger than the scanning bed were scanned in multiple sections, which were then assembled with a stitching program, Panavue Image Assembler. The longest plan scanned, 301-1_HP, is 20 feet long in the original. Because of the limitations of Adobe Photoshop, the image editing program used to create the display images for this website, this plan and other longer plans had to be reduced to the program's 30,000 pixel maximum. Plans were scanned at high resolution, ranging from 300 to 600 dpi depending on the size of the original.

Besides plans scanned at the RDIC, Adam Levine scanned hundreds of plans using a variety of scanners at the City Plans Unit and at the 7th Survey District. Smaller plans were scanned in color on an Epson flatbed scanner with an 11.5 x 17 inch bed. Many were scanned in multiple sections that were stitched together with Panavue Image Assembler. Larger blueprints and tracings that were in stable condition were scanned, in either black and white or color, on roll-through plotters. A close examination of some of these scans reveals pixelation that makes them less satisfying than high resolution digital reproductions, and number of plans scanned in black and white had colored lines or shading that do not appear in the scans. The color plotters used for some larger plans sometimes produced satisfactory results, but the factory-set anti-skewing feature often did just the opposite, breaking the solid lines in the plan in its computer-stupid attempt to make every line perfectly straight.

While these scans vary in quality, they have been included in the online collection to expand the depth and range of the available material, and with the knowledge that any of the plans scanned by less-than-perfect methods can someday be rescanned at high-resolution on proper equipment if money is available.

Plan Storage

To save space in storage, and because many plans are too large to be stored in flat files, most of the plans that were scanned for this project had been stored in tubes, rolled up, usually in bundles ranging from a few plans to fifty or more. Simply unrolling all these plans—there are hundreds of plan storage tubes in the central City Plans office alone—became a major undertaking, although an exciting one, as treasures were anticipated (and often found) as each group was unrolled. This process involved two and sometimes four people at the beginning, when the focus was on the oldest HP, or Historic Plan, group. But after those tubes were fully examined and catalogued, it was left to Adam Levine to continue examining the rest of the many tubes, as well as the many flat files and hanging files in the main office and the stored plans in the five survey districts. While unrolling a batch of plans was akin to a treasure hunt, re-rolling them tightly enough so they fit back in the tube became the most tedious part of the process.

Many plans were undamaged by this mode of storage, but a number suffered varying degrees of damage. For many mounted plans, the paper on which the plan was drawn began peeling from the cloth backing, sometimes breaking off altogether. Other plans became corrugated, and others were tattered at the borders, although in many cases this affected only blank areas of the plans. All of these flaws are apparent in the scans, although it is a tribute to the staff at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Regional Digital Imaging Center, who scanned the most fragile plans, they the defects are not more apparent. The Cruse scanner includes a vacuum feature that provides suction to help flatten the rolls and corrugations of the plans. The scanning bed is metallic, which allows the use of metal rulers and strong magnets to flatten curled edges. Strips of heavy Plexiglas were also used as edge weights. While the archival scans provided by the RDIC do include any edge flattening devices used, as well as a color card for each scan, this hardware was mostly cropped from the scans for presentation purposes, although it is still apparent in some of them.


Adam Levine, Jeff Cohen, Jim Duffin, Jefferson Moak, Aaron Wunsch, Pete Lamb, and Torben Jenk comprised a group they called the “Map Detectives” at the beginning of this project in 2009. After the initial historic plans were surveyed and cataloged, the bulk of the work on the project fell to Adam Levine, who was paid for his time under his ongoing contracts with the Philadelphia Water Department.

Frank Morelli, Philadelphia Streets Department City Plans Manager, and Tom Marro, City Plans Director, provided unfettered access to the collection during the course of the project. Thaddeus Jordan, City Plans Clerk, was especially helpful with information on various plans on the filing process used in the office. In the city’s District Survey outposts, John Tohey of the 9th District, Karl Kreigh at the 7th, and the staff of the 2nd Survey District were especially cooperative, allowing Adam Levine access to all the files of their respective offices.

Joan Decker, then head of the city’s Department of Records, and Jill Rawnsley, consulting archives for the city’s Department of Records, understood the importance of these documents and arranged for the oldest and most fragile to be transferred to City Archives, where intern Kevin Davey cataloged and carefully stored about 500 plans.

The staff of the Regional Digital Imaging Center at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Mike Seneca and Jim Carroll, treat each document that comes their way with as much care as if it was their own. Finally, thanks to Bruce Laverty, the Athenaeum’s curator and the instigator of the Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network; and to Walter Rice, who took the data from Adam Levine’s massive spreadsheet and made it presentable and usable online.