Graphic design prior to graphic design

Hanscom Place Plat

I love finding great design in everyday places. While traveling down an internet wormhole while researching Omaha history, I came across the Douglas County Engineer’s site. It hosts plats and surveys of the whole city. This gem is the original plat George Smith submitted to the city in 1873 after surveying my house’s subdivision. This thing looks like it should have an “X” marking where Red Beard buried his treasure and a notation over the Hanscom Park lagoon reading “HERE BE MONSTERS.” Let me tell you, the plats of west Omaha suburbs have nothing on this.

here be monsters

City of Omaha

place lettering

compass rose

I’ve always been a big fan of old maps (especially Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps) for the history and detail they show. But this one is gorgeous. The lettering is fantastic. I love the detail of the compass rose. I also get a kick out of seeing the old names for the numbered streets (Liberty instead of 33rd St.; Madison instead of 32nd Ave.; Delaware instead of 32nd St.; Duane instead of 31st St.; Catherine instead of 30th Ave.; Georgia instead of 29th St.; Virginia instead of what used to be 28th and is now I-480; Mt. Pleasant instead of Pacific St. and Baltimore instead of Hickory St.).

This map may not match contemporary tastes (though there’s certainly a revival in the precise hand lettering Smith used on his map), but it’s interesting to see a very utilitarian object created carefully and in a visually pleasing way. There’s a notion that professional graphic design as we know it originated with the Vignellis, Glasers, Basses and Fletchers of the world. But while they were all in short pants, artists created amazing WPA posters, and before that ethereal lithographs advertising liquor and theaters and bicycles. And before that, craftsmen like George Smith took care care and pride in drafting clerical maps that were unlikely to be seen by more than a handful of real estate and engineering insiders. Today draftsmen digitally export shiny new clerical maps from AutoCAD that are far from anything that anyone would want to hang on a wall, which is exactly what I plan to do with the Hanscom Place plat (perhaps with my addition of a sea serpent in the lagoon).

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