Sanborn Maps: Your neighborhood’s history in pastel

With these maps you can see for yourself what your neighborhood looked like for the generations who have preceded you.

Every neighborhood seems to have one: that older man or woman who grew up in the neighborhood, who knows everybody’s name, and who is really the soul of your community. You probably know a person just like this.

The place where I grew up had one: Mrs. Potts. She was always the first person to welcome new neighbors – usually carrying in her hands the most delicious peach pie you’d ever had or homemade brownies that were still warm. She walked the neighborhood every day and would talk to you about the bed of flowers you had planted.

But let’s be frank; sometimes you wonder if these old birds are putting you on. Can you really believe them when they tell you there used to be six movie theaters downtown? Or that they attended a church on the corner of your street? Where the auto parts store is now? Seriously?

Fact-check that Mrs. Potts, using a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

Washington, DC – 1888

The Sanborn Map Company began producing fire insurance maps in 1866. For 140 years, the company mapped the urban core of over 12,000 American cities and towns and created an atlas of images without rival in our nation’s history.

These maps are like cartographic forebears of the modern Google Map, venerated ancestors that allow contemporary users to peek into your town’s past.

With this collection at hand, you can see for yourself what your neighborhood looked like for the generations – like Mrs. Potts’s – who have preceded you.

Designed to convey the liability of buildings to fire, the maps reveal a dizzying amount of information. Not only do they display individual building use, occupant, and address, the maps also show attributes such as building height and footprint, construction material, wall thickness, window placement, parcel boundary, street name and width.

Even the location of gas and water mains, fire hydrants, and call boxes are details one may glean from these maps.

Tombstone, AZ (note the OK Corral in the middle right)

There are several places online to turn for digital copies of these maps. Your local college or library has possibly converted the original, full-color, 21 by 25 inch paper maps for online usage. The Library of Congress has done this, as well, although coverage may be spotty in your state.

If they haven’t digitized your town, the next best resource is Digital Sanborn Maps: 1867-1970, a repository of more than 660,000 black-and-white scans organized neatly by state, city, and date (the Sanborn company often remapped a growing town every five years or so).

This is the most comprehensive online collection, both temporally and spatially. Though the website is restricted to paid users, many academic and public libraries provide access to cardholders.

Armchair historians in North Carolina benefit from a more usable – and ultimately, more valuable – resource, the University of North Carolina’s web-based project, Going to the Show.

Going to the Show culls 750 full-color Sanborn maps published of 45 North Carolina towns between 1896 and 1922.

Dr. Robert C. Allen, professor of American Studies, led a team that created a Google Map overlay for each town by a process called georeferencing. The team scanned each map, digitally stitched them together, and pinned this map collage to its real-world coordinates.

The result? A town-wide, full-color Sanborn map whose transparency may be adjusted to see the contemporary aerial imagery beneath, providing a rather ghostly experience of passing easily between two eras.

Look at this image of Charlotte, for instance.

Charlotte, NC

Today, the Carolina Panthers make their home at Bank One Stadium. But the 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of this same area, displayed semi-opaquely above the present-day aerial photograph, exposes a neighborhood of wood-frame houses, a brick church and a brick school. The Good Samaritan Hospital occupied a part of the stands just beyond the end zone.

Because the Sanborn maps offer a longitudinal sweep of American life, they reveal unexpected aspects of American culture expressed in the built environment.

Murphy, NC

Here’s a 1921 Sanborn map of Murphy, North Carolina, showing the location of the Louisville & Nashville Passenger Station and a small rail yard. Murphy no longer has passenger train service, but a closer look at the station’s perfunctory annotation jars the viewer: “WHITE WAITING R’M” and “COLORED WAITING R’M”.

The stain of racism on our national identity is starkly illustrated, without comment, just as everything else is captured on a Sanborn map. Few other historical resources present such matter-of-fact, unambiguous views of American life.

“Here, in 1913, was a 2-story vaudeville house for Negroes called the Electric Theatre,” the map tells you, “with a 1 ½-story rear addition for ‘stage & scenery’.”

“And here is a 2 ½-story dwelling with wrap-around porches, a 3-story turret, and a greenhouse on the southeast corner of the lot.”

New Bern, NC

This image of 1913 New Bern shows how much the coastline of a river town can change over the decades, as it morphs from a port city full of cement mills, grist mills, and freight yards into a tourist destination of museums, seaside parks, and marinas.

Sanborn maps are invaluable for the detailed insight they bring to understanding the evolution of urbanized areas and individual buildings. Geographers, historic preservationists and researchers, genealogists, city planners, and demographers are just a few of the people who use Sanborn maps every day.

A resource like the Going to the Show provides the user with access to full-color, georeferenced Sanborn maps that can easily be manipulated to compare historic an contemporary land use – or even compare multiple years of Sanborn map information.

There are some weaknesses. The website is temporally limited, only allowing the users to view pre-1923 Sanborn maps. It is spatially limited, as well, only displaying maps for 45 towns – and not always the entirety of the urbanized area from any given year. Also, the images are not downloadable as PDFs, unlike the Digital Sanborn Maps: 1867-1970 website.

Still, Going to the Show is an incredible resource, both intuitive to use and powerful in its application. It is the first place I turn to when I need a Sanborn map.

And it may be all you need to start a new conversation with Mrs. Potts — or to keep her honest. No matter how good her peach pie is.

Comment (1) Add yours ↓
  1. Elizabeth Sappenfield

    I checked out my neighborhood’s map (1937). My neighbor and I used to share a garage that straddled the property line.

    July 10, 2012 Reply

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