Needham History Center & Museum

Mapping Needham, 1771-1970

On view at the History Center now!

Birds eye Needham Center 1887

aps of Needham, from the 18th through the 20th centuries, show the rapid pace of change in our town.  Before 1900, streets were few, and houses were so sparse that each one could be plotted on the map and labeled with the name of the owner.  As time went on, the maps show the moving of the town center, the frequent subdivision of open land into neighborhoods, and Needham’s transition from a farming town, to a manufacturing town, to a densely-populated residential suburb. These maps also give a good view of the local topography – the steams, ponds, marshes, and woodlots that once formed the town’s treasured economic resources, and how they became less visible (and less important) as the town changed.

Map Selections

Click on thumbnail images below for detailed maps.

Barachaiah Mason, 1771 – This is the oldest known map of Needham.  The town had a population of about 900 people and 200 households – few enough that each house could be marked on the map and labeled with the owner’s name.  In 1771, the Town of Needham included what are now the towns of Needham, Wellesley, and parts of Natick (known as the “Needham Leg”). The Needham History Center owns a transcription of this map, but the original resides in the MA State Archives. 

Asa Kingsbury, 1836 – Drawn fifty years after the Mason map, this map shows the loss of the ‘Needham Leg,’ which returned to Natick in 1797. It also shows topography and resources – small hills, rivers, ponds and reservoirs, woodlots, and swampy meadows. Like the earlier map, every house in Needham is marked and labeled; this was a consistent feature of Needham maps until about 1910, when the density of roads and houses made this impractical. (Note – annotations in red, circa 1840).  

Henry F. Walling’s Map of Needham, 1856 – One of the most detailed and beautiful of the historic maps.  This map captures important changes during the 1830s and 40s,  including the two new railroad lines from Boston, and early signs of the shift from the old center toward the new center growing in the Great Plain.  The 1836 and 1856 maps were made in response to an 1829 state law that required towns to conduct surveys every five years to maintain the accuracy of the state map. 


Map of Needham, Sherman Atlas of Norfolk County, 1876 – This map also shows houses and owners, but sacrificed a great deal of elegance and detail to accommodate the increased density of roads and buildings.  The town’s population had grown rapidly since 1856, and the greatest changes can be seen in the manufacturing areas around Upper and Lower Falls and along the train tracks – evidence of increased economic activity from the new trains. This is the last map that includes Wellesley, which became an independent town 1881. 


Bird’s Eye Map of Needham Center, 1887 – Birds-eye maps became popular display items in the 1800s, and were produced with decorative details to make them look more like pictures than maps.  The scale was often distorted to emphasize the town’s more important buildings (town halls, churches, factories, etc).  To offset the high cost of production, the publisher would solicit sponsorships from business owners and prominent residents, whose homes or businesses would then be featured as insets around the margin of the map.

Birds Eye Map of Highlandville (Needham Heights), 1887 – The Needham Center and Highlandville maps were part of a birds-eye atlas of Massachusetts, published by O.H. Bailey and Co. of Boston between 1880 and 1890.  Oakley Hoopes Bailey was a pioneer in producing these panoramic scenes, and was one of the most prolific creators and publishers of birds-eye maps in the country between 1871 and 1927.  It has been suggested that the view was taken from a tethered air balloon, but evidence for this is scarce.