Activity: Old Maps and New

This activity supports Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies — Thinking Like a Historian — Change and Continuity. Adapted from the Wisconsin Historical Society lesson plan “Old Map, New Map: Let’s Compare,” by Mark Waggoner.

Grade level: Appropriate for grades 4-12 with teacher modifications.

Duration: One or two class periods.


1)   Use Recollection Wisconsin to locate a historic map or bird’s eye view from your local community (or perhaps a neighboring city). To find historic maps through Recollection Wisconsin:

  • In the Keyword Search box, enter the word map plus the name of your community. Other search terms to try: atlasplat mapplat book.
  • Head to the Browse Collections by Category interface and choose “Maps” from the Materials list to see a list of all available collections containing maps.

2)   Then locate a current map of the same community showing approximately the same geographic area (try using Google Maps or the United States Geological Survey to find current maps).

3)   Working in pairs or in small groups, students should compare the old map with the new map, focusing on specific landmarks such as streets, railroad tracks, businesses, schools, churches, and government buildings.

4)   After students have compared their old maps with the new maps, have them brainstorm possible reasons the community planners chose the original locations for the landmarks. Students should use the information on the maps to list the ways the community has changed over time and the ways it has remained the same.

Extension activity for secondary students: Have students create a “community map of the future” based on what they’ve learned about how the community has changed over time. Which buildings and community functions will change or disappear in 20 years? 100 years? Which will remain?

Bird's eye view of Black River Falls, Jackson County, Wisconsin, 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Bird’s eye view of Black River Falls, Jackson County, Wisconsin, 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society.