Needham History Center & Museum

Mapping Needham – 1771, and Beyond!

From 1771 and still going strong, mapmakers have created beautiful depictions of Needham, lovingly rendering our 3D world into intricate 2D detail.  In the process, they have given us an active record of our changing town.


I love maps! I love the graphic beauty of them, I love tracing how the places change over time, I love the discipline of trying to envision the 3D world from a 2D picture. Random factoid – when I was in college, one of the first thing I was taught (Archaeology major) was how to survey and create a map; in those days, the field required maps to be drawn by hand, in ink, according to an arcane standard set in the 1920s. What fun!

Maps 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.

Although Needham cannot boast the numbers of maps produced for major hubs, the Needham History Center still has a fine selection of maps, and many of them are on display right now. The earliest map dates to 1771, when Needham hired surveyor Barachiah Mason to create a map of the town.  Mason’s map included what is now Wellesley and a part of Natick known as the Needham Leg. There is also a less-detailed map made by Jonathan Kingsbury in 1794 that lays out the town boundaries and landmarks.  Maps become more common in the 1800s.  In our collections, we have maps from 1836, 1856, an atlas from 1876, and a pair of birds-eye maps from 1887. 

A detail of the downtown, from the 1887 Birds Eye Map of Needham Center.
A detail of the downtown, from the 1887 Birds Eye Map of Needham Center.

One reason for all the good maps, is that MA law required towns to keep accurate surveys.  In order to maintain an accurate state map, each town in Massachusetts was required by to make a town plan based on a survey no more than five years old, and submit it to the state secretary’s office. This law dates back, in various forms, to the late 1700s, and may have been the reason that the town commissioned the Barachiah Mason map in the first place. Plans were to be drawn to a consistent scale, and were to include all available information about roads, waterways, churches, schoolhouses, topographic features, and natural resources (mines, woodlands, meadows, etc). Here are a few of my favorites:

1771 Map by Barachiah Mason:  In 1771, Town Meeting paid surveyor Barachiah Mason L3 to draw a map of the town. I do not believe Mason himself lived in Needham, but he was assisted in the surveying work by residents Michael Metcalf, Capt. Lemuel Pratt, and Isaac Underwood.  Two years before, the Town had directed Metcalf and Pratt to make a copy of a map of the town that was held in the Dedham Town Clerk’s office, so it seems that Needham did not yet have a properly-surveyed map of its own until the Mason map was made.  The map shows the boundaries of Needham in 1771 and included what is now Needham and Wellesley, and also a part of Natick (roughly bounded by Bacon Street and Rt. 27 in Natick and the line of Manor Avenue in Wellesley) that was known as the Needham Leg. The History Center has a copy of the Mason map, but the original is part of the MA State Archives collections.

1794 Map by Col. Jonathan Kingsbury:  In September 1794, in compliance with state law (“resolve”), Town Meeting directed the Selectmen to “take the Care of the planing the Town agreable to the Refolve of the General Court” and to do it “in the Best and Cheapest manner they can.”  Kingsbury’s map outlines the borders of the town and the landmarks found along it – bridges, mills, a rock marking the border between Needham and Weston.  There are not a lot of other details.  The only roads shown on the map are the road from Lower Falls to the West Parish Meeting House (now Route 16) and a “county road” that appears to be the current Glen Road.  This is the last map to include the Needham Leg, which was annexed permanently to Natick in 1798. Because the map is so spare, you can actually see the survey points – the “dots” that Kingsbury connected to record the landscape.  We do not own this map either (alas!); it is now held in the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

1836 Map by Asa Kingsbury:  This map was drawn fifty years after the Mason map, and is the first to show the loss of the Needham Leg, which returned to Natick in 1798. 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. According to the legend on the map, it was surveyed in 1831, but not published until 1836. It also notes that the town’s area is 15,009 acres, that the river frontage is 16 miles and 83 rods (1 rod = 16.5 feet), and that the town’s population in 1830 was 1420 people. Asa Kingsbury was the son of Col. Jonathan, who had made the 1794 map. He was a surveyor, and also served the town as Town Clerk and as it Representative in General Court.

1856 Map by Henry F. Walling:  One of the most detailed and beautiful of the historic maps.  This map captures the 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 at Nehoiden Street toward the new center growing in the Great Plain. Unlike previous town maps, which were surveyed by locals, the 1856 map was surveyed for the town by Henry Francis Walling, who was Superintendent of the State Map (the guy that the updates got sent to every five years).  Walling was trained in civil engineering, and became a mapmaker in 1849. Between 1849 and 1855, he created maps for the northern states, the provinces of Canada, and more than 50 maps for MA towns. He became Superintendent in 1855, and later in his career, he joined the United States Geological Survey.

1876 Map of Needham, Sherman Atlas of Norfolk County:  This atlas contained full-town maps of the county towns, as well as details of each.  The full map of Needham also shows the 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. 

1887 Bird’s Eye Maps of Needham Center and Highlandville (Needham Heights):  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.  The Needham Center and Heights (called “Highlandville” until 1907) 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.

I will stop here. Not that there are not any interesting 20th century maps – but that there are so many of them!  My favorites are the Lucas Street Maps, made by the Lucas Company, Civil Engineers, of Reading, MA (“Map Making and Surveys of All Descriptions”).  The maps were basically a form of advertising for the company, but they are detailed and span a period from about the 1920s to the 1950s, so I can trace things like the street changes that followed the building of Route 128.  The Sanborn Insurance Company Fire Safety Maps from the 1890s to the 1940s detailed every building (by material!), shed, garage, and anything else likely to catch fire and be claimed on insurance.  Needham’s current maps are digital, and the town’s website has a bewildering array of GIS maps and overlays for every feature of the town, including trails, wetlands, zoning categories, historic houses (yes!), soil types, topography, and many more.

But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so it looks like I owe you at least 1.7 pictures. I can do better than that.  These maps are on display at the History Center as part of an exhibit called Mapping Needham: 1771-1970.  Some of them are also posted on our website, as an online exhibit HERE . The online images are enlargeable, so you can see them in good detail – check them out!

And of course, you are welcome to visit us to see them in person. We are at 1147 Central Avenue, in front of the Newman School. Or, you can just look us up on Google Maps.


Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum