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New Fire Insurance Map Research Guide Available

The most heavily used collection in the Geography and Map Division are the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, a collection of large-scale, building level maps, dating from 1867 to the present which depict the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some 12,000 cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Sanborn collection includes about 50,000 editions of fire insurance maps comprising an estimated 700,000 individual sheets. The Library of Congress holdings represent the largest extant collection of maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company.

Building level map of area of Washington D.C. showing mostly red and yellow buildings.

This area shows where the Madison Building at the Library of Congress currently stands and the surrounding neighborhood. Washington D.C., Sanborn Fire Insurance Company, 1888. Geography and Map Division.

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. They show the locations of water mains, giving their dimensions, and of fire alarm boxes and hydrants. Sanborn maps are thus an unrivaled source of information for their time about the structure and use of buildings in American cities.

While these specialized maps were originally prepared for the exclusive use of fire insurance companies and underwriters, like the 1951 map of West Orange, New Jersey (pictured below), they are used for multiple purposes now including city planning, family history, environmental reports, town histories, and more. They are popular because everybody has a personal connection with a city, a town, a street or even a particular building whether it is a family home, a store, a ball park, or any number of places from our past that have played significant roles in our lives.

Building level map showing a neighborhood in West Orange, NJ with mostly frame houses.

West Orange, New Jersey. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company, 1951. Geography and Map Division.

Starting in 2014, the Geography and Map Division, in partnership with Historic Information Gatherers, started digitizing the public domain map sheets in the Sanborn collection. In August 2020, the last of these public domain map sheets were placed on the Library’s webpage and can now be freely accessed and downloaded by the public! These currently include maps published before 1923 and before 1963 in which the copyright was not renewed. Additional sheets will be made available as they enter the public domain.

A comprehensive checklist of all Sanborn Maps held by the Library’s Geography and Map Division, with links to the digital images, is available online. A new research guide is also now available to assist researchers in both discovering and navigating these primary source materials!

Mapping A World Of Cities

Sponsored by the Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library and the MacLean Collection Map Library in Chicago, IL, the Library of Congress is pleased to announce its participation entitled Mapping A World of Cities in a joint project with the American Geographical Society (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), the David Rumsey Map Center (Stanford Libraries, California), […]

Canals of Washington, DC

Washington, D.C., was established as the “permanent seat of the Federal Government” by the passage of the Residence Act in 1790. This act allowed President George Washington to select the site for the new city anywhere along the banks of the Potomac River between its junction with the Shenandoah River, near present day Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and its junction with the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River, just below the current location of Washington, DC.

The area demarcated for the new city was a blank slate and President Washington selected Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to create a design for it. The map below, published in 1794, reflects L’Enfant’s vision for the new city with a few improvements attributed to Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820).

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading along from the Potomac River, down the format location of Tiber Creek, to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

Ellicott, Andrew. Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government after the year MDCCC. [Perth, Scotland?: s.n., ?, 1792], Geography and Map Division. Published in 1792, the map shows canals leading from the Potomac River, down the former location of Tiber Creek (see below), to the base of the Capitol, and then south to the Navy Yard.

The detail below shows the Potomac River, the mouth of Tiber Creek, and the United States Mall as laid out by L’Enfant and Ellicott. Running along the  Mall, as we know it today, was a creek that led westward from roughly the current site of Union Station to the Tidal Basin and, ultimately, to the Potomac River. What many Washingtonians may not realize is that both L’Enfant’s original design, and Ellicott’s improvement incorporated canals to facilitate the shipment of goods and construction materials to build the new city.

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L'Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791]. Geography and Map Division.Map

United States Office Of Public Buildings And Grounds, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, F. D Owen, Theo. A Bingham, and United States Army. Corps Of Engineers. The Mall as proposed by Pierre L’Enfant: from the original: Washington D.C. [Washington?: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1791] Geography and Map Division.

In addition to the canal running past the White House, there were grand plans for a university on the west end of the Mall and a turning basin for the canal at the base of Capitol Hill. The proposed University resembles the original campus of the University of Virginia!

 District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Plan of the west end of the public appropriation in the city of Washington, called the Mall: as proposed to be arranged for the site of the university. 1816. Geography and Map Division.

 

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup't of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division.

District Of Columbia. Office Of The Surveyor, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Map exhibiting the property of the U.S. in the vicinity of the Capitol: colored red, with the manner in which it is proposed to lay off the same in building lots, as described in the report to the Sup’t of the city to which this is annexed. 1815. Geography and Map Division. In addition to the Washington Canal, the topography of Capitol Hill, also known as Jenkins Hill, can be seen running from north to south through the center of the map.

So why the canal?  It was simply a time saving measure.  The sandstone blocks that were used in Read more »

Solving a Burning Question

While browsing through our digital map collections, I came across a map that forced me to stop and take a closer look. Titled Fire chart of the Borough of Manhattan, N.Y…, it was published in 1915 and shows the number of reported fires in Manhattan, block by block, for the years 1910, 1911, and 1912. […]

The Los Angeles Oil Boom Through Maps

Los Angeles is world famous for its sunny beaches and Hollywood glamour, but did you know that the California metropolis has a long history as a booming oil city? At both large and small scales, maps help tell the stories of this often forgotten part of the Los Angeles’s past and present. The first commercially […]

Baseball Stadiums and Maps: Chicago

As part of the Library’s newly opened, yearlong exhibit Baseball Americana, the Geography and Map Division will be featuring several blog posts describing the depiction and history of baseball stadiums on maps in major American cities. As the only city that has had more than one Major League Baseball franchise every year since the establishment […]