If you have roots in Philadelphia (or southern New Jersey…more on that later), or if you are simply interested in maps or history, there is a very interesting site called the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. There are many useful resources here. On the Resource Browser page, you’ll find all sorts of interesting things including browse-able city directories from 1856, 1858, 1861, and 1866 as well as various maps and aerial photos. But to really see the maps in their full glory, and see the usefulness of modern technology at its finest, visit the Interactive Maps Viewer. There you can view the city’s current street maps on top of historical maps from various years including 1942, 1903, and even 1855.
Besides being a lot of fun, these overlays are extremely useful for genealogical research. For example, you’ve found an address from a census record, draft card, or city directory, but the street does not show up on Google Maps because it is no longer in existence or no longer called by the same name. Although you can’t search for it by name, you can easily scan the current neighborhood and see the old names underneath. As a “big” example of such a name change, I used the map to go to where John F. Kennedy Blvd is today. This is the sprawling boulevard that leads up to the city’s Art Museum. By unchecking the overlay for the current street map, I could clearly see the street’s previous name: Pennsylvania Boulevard.
The 1942 maps have many businesses, and especially factories, that have long since closed up shop. By looking at your ancestor’s neighborhood, you can see many of the businesses that were in existence back then. Or, you can see your ancestor’s place of employment on the map if you find the address via draft registration cards or social security applications. In the screen shot below you can see an example of some of the business names.
For me, it was interesting to see some streets from the city’s history that are now gone due to things like the construction of I-95. Even more fun is to view the “newer” neighborhoods, such as Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, and see few streets on the old maps. Instead, most of the area is farms, and some wealthier individuals that owned a lot of land are noted by name on the map.
For those with New Jersey roots, there is a 1930 aerial map. Many current neighborhoods did not exist back then!
If you are having trouble locating a Philadelphia street on a current map of the city, a wonderful site is the Historic Street Name Index at PhillyHistory.org. The image below is a partial screen shot to provide an example. In this case, it clearly shows the name change of three different streets to Alaska, then Alaska St. also changes to Kater. It also tells you what year the name change occurred and if the street is still in existence today.
Any city goes through many changes throughout its history. Of course, some things remain the same. You can still find Independence Hall in the same place as it was in 1776!