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My Love for the Sanborn Maps will Never Die

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Last month Inside Adams published a post about some of the “special” collections at the Library that would be good for business research.  In it, I mentioned “place maps,” which was a generic and wholly inadequate phrase that encompasses a lot of material.

For quite a while I’ve wanted to write about one particular map collection that I have a real fondness for – the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.

These maps cover 12,000 American towns and cities and were created for assessing fire insurance liability in urbanized areas in the United States.  They include information such as the outline of individual buildings, the size/shape and construction materials, heights and function of structures, and location of windows and doors.  Also included are street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, city water pipe locations, fire alarm box locations, and house and block numbers.  Of particular interest to business researchers are details like building use and sometimes even the names of individual businesses.

Broadly speaking, they can be used to study the history, growth, and development of American cities, towns, and neighborhoods.  Business researchers might find them helpful to show the growth, development, and/or decline of commercial districts and the spread of central business districts.  Also, for those interested in a particular business, a map of the neighborhood when the business was in operation can provide a nice addition to the overall picture.

small image from the Sanborn map with blocks of color coded with numbers like 199, 228, 229, 230, 231, 232, 233, 200 that indicate sheet numbers in the Seward Place area with Pennsylvania Avenue, South Carolina Avenue, and North Carolina Avenue
Image from the Key page Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from volume 2 (1904) for Washington, D.C.

Using the maps can require a bit of patience, but once you know how it works and if you know the geography of the place you are interested in, it gets easier.  They are arranged by state, city, and release date. The Library has digitized a number of these maps prior to 1922 including information on the Keys, Legends, and Symbol sheets that anyone can use.

The image here shows the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th Street SE in Washington on Capitol Hill, from volume 2 (1904) and is covered by sheets 229-233. Since I am familiar enough with the neighborhood, I know that the area I am most interested in is covered by sheets 229 and 230 (traveling south down 8th Street see sheets 232, 233, and 236).

Image shows the Haines Department store that is brick with a big clock that is titles Reorganized Department Store
Washington Times, January 14, 1910

I decided to focus on sheet 230 and in particular, the south east corner where the Haines’ Department store was located (the building is still there).  Just down 8th Street, which runs top to bottom on the left side, it shows 414 8th was a firehouse that was under construction and 430 8th was occupied by a drug store. Using the key and focusing on the Haines’ property shows that it was a 3 story brick building with a brick or metal cornice and had steam heat and electric lights.

image shows one sheet 230 from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps that features the block with the Haines department store on Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th street southeast
Image from Sheet 230 of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps in volume 2 (1904) for Washington, D.C.

To get a picture of the surrounding neighborhood, sheet 230 also shows the Old Naval Hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue (which is still there) and Grace Baptist Church on 9th.  Sheet 229 is a trove of information.  It shows there were two furniture stores and a drug store on Pennsylvania, as well as a bakery, a liquor store, a public school that was being built (and three existing schools – Eastern, Wallach, and Towers), a livery stable, B.L. Simpson Wood & Coal Yard, a plumbing store, the Enon Baptist Church, and a tin shop on D Street.  Sheet 232 shows two drug stores, a candy factory, a dairy, a cobbler, a liquor store, a Chinese laundry, and Christ Church.  Lastly, sheet 233 includes the Marine Barracks, while sheet 199 includes Eastern Market – both of which are still there. Overall, it provides a nice picture of this area at the time.

Beyond what the Library has digitized, there are other digitized collections from other libraries and research institutions. The Library has gathered links to a few of the larger collections but others may be out there or be digitized in the future.

I have used these maps to look at my own neighborhood and have found them very helpful in understanding how it once appeared, despite all of the changes that have happened over the years.

Comments (2)

  1. Hello,
    I find Sanborn maps really useful, but I am wondering how complete they are. I would like to look at the D.C. map for 1950, volumes 9 and 10. But I can only find the suburban maps for 1950. Am I looking in the wrong place?

    • You may need to ask Geography & Map but it looks like they may not have done it yet. The Digital Sanborn Maps database from Proquest does have volumes 1-10 for the city that have later dates.

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