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A gift from Sanborn and the Library of Congress

The genealogical community got the first installment of what’s going to be a fabulous gift for research when the Library of Congress announced yesterday that nearly 25,000 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps have gone online and can be accessed free.

The News from the Library of Congress published yesterday tells us that what’s online now is only the first part of what will ultimately be a collection of some 500,000 maps:

The online collection now features maps published prior to 1900. The states available include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Alaska is also online, with maps published through the early 1960s. By 2020, all the states will be online, showing maps from the late 1880s through the early 1960s.1

To which The Legal Genealogist has only one thing to say: Ohboyohboyohboy!!!

If you’ve never had the pleasure of working with Sanborn maps (and even if you have), the first thing you want to do is read the “Introduction to the Collection.” It explains that: “The Sanborn map collection consists of a uniform series of large-scale maps, dating from 1867 to the present and depicting the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some twelve thousand cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.”2

And, the introduction goes on:

The Sanborn map collection consists of a uniform series of large-scale maps, dating from 1867 to the present and depicting the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some twelve thousand cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The maps were designed to assist fire insurance agents in determining the degree of hazard associated with a particular property and therefore show the size, shape, and construction of dwellings, commercial buildings, and factories as well as fire walls, locations of windows and doors, sprinkler systems, and types of roofs. The maps also indicate widths and names of streets, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers.3

Take a look, for example, at this snippet of the Sanborn map of Belton, county seat of Bell County, Texas, in the year 1896.

Sanborn map, Belton, Texas, 1896

You can see, for example, the County Court House between Water and Cross and Main and East. Continue up Cross for another block and you come to the County Jail.

Across Cross Avenue from the Courthouse, the business district: the drug store and jeweler, the banks, the hardware store, the dry good.

Across Main from the Courthouse, another set of businesses: the notions store, the furniture store, a place selling paints and wallpaper. Also on Main on the far side of Cross Avenue, the fancy goods store, the bakery, the confectioner’s store.

And on Cross Avenue, almost immediately across from the jail, the Natatorium. (I had to look that up — it’s an indoor swimming pool4 — not something I would have expected in 1896 Texas!)

In other words, these maps are a thoroughly detailed look at the history of our cities and towns — a way to see where and how our ancestors lived.

Want some ideas as to how to use them? Take a gander at the essays “Sanborn Samplers,”5 and Sanborn Time Series,6 also on the site.

Need more? Jill Morelli did a terrific webinar for the Legacy Family Webinar series back in April 2016 — “Fire Insurance Maps – The Google Maps of Their Day.” The single digital download is $9.95, but a better deal is to get the whole webinar series by subscription ($9.95 for one month, $49.95 for a year).

Now… remember that not all the maps are online yet. If the area you’re interested isn’t on the Library of Congress site yet, look for other options. For example, if you’re in Kansas City, you can access the historical maps for cities and towns in Missouri and Kansas from home with a library card from the Kansas City Public Library. New York City maps are available through the New York Public Library.

Maps are a genealogist’s friend for so many reasons, and the details on these Sanborn maps make them our BFFs.

Take a look… and plan on giving up sleep…


SOURCES

  1. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Now Online,” News from the Library of Congress, posted 25 May 2017, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 25 May 2017).
  2. Introduction to the Collection,” Sanborn Maps Collection, Library of Congress Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 25 May 2017).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 26 May 2017), “natatorium.”
  5. Sanborn Samplers,” Sanborn Maps Collection, Library of Congress Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 25 May 2017).
  6. Ibid., “Sanborn Time Series.”
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