The City Museum of Washington is still settling into its handsome new quarters on Mount Vernon Square, in the building that originally was the city's Central Library, but at this early stage in its development it has gotten into the publishing business in an impressive way. Washington Images: Rare Maps and Prints from the Albert H. Small Collection (sold at the museum for $19.99) is a valuable contribution to the city's historical record and, in and of itself, an exceptionally attractive, inviting book.
A successful Washington businessman, Albert H. Small has been collecting maps and prints dealing with the city for more than half a century. A selection from his extensive archives was displayed at the City Museum last year in an exhibition entitled "Taking a Closer Look: Images from the Albert H. Small Collection." The maps and prints included in this volume are only a minuscule part of the whole, but they manage to encapsulate much of the city's past in fewer than 100 pages, and all of them are reproduced with exceptional fidelity.
All periods of the city's history from preparations for its founding in the late 18th century through the early 20th century are represented, but particular emphasis is placed on the Civil War. Some of these images are familiar (the four convicted conspirators in Abraham Lincoln's assassination standing on the hangman's scaffold) while others (a lithograph of Camp Fry, on what is now the campus of George Washington University) are not, but all reveal different aspects of a time in which the city's very existence hung in the balance.
Washington Images is not the one Washington book to have if you're having only one -- that, six decades after its original publication, is still the Federal Writers' Program's Washington: City and Capital -- but its vivid illustrations and authoritative text make it an excellent addition to any Washingtonian's library.
-- Jonathan Yardley