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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 5/31/2000

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Maps are excellent genealogical tools. Genealogists with rural ancestors frequently use plat maps (also referred to as "plat books") to view property lines in a certain civil area and to easily determine the relative positions of tracts of lands.

Urban researchers have a similar tool: fire insurance maps. These maps are different in that the names of property owners are not listed. Armed with an address, one can find a house on the map and at least learn something about the structure itself, including its relative position to other houses on the same street or block. When combined with a city directory (especially a "reverse" directory that lists residences in numerical order based upon street addresses), an interesting picture of the neighborhood can be developed.

One of the largest creators of fire insurance maps was the Sanborn Company. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of Sanborn maps. Many libraries have copies of these maps on microfilm for specific cities or areas. Other companies created fire insurance maps, but Sanborn created the vast majority.

The Sanborn Company was founded by D. A. Sanborn in 1867 and created fire insurance maps from 1867 until 1961. The firm issued and periodically updated maps for 12,000 American cities and towns. The majority of the maps are from the years of 1876 to 1961, and some areas have as many as seven or eight editions. Insurance underwriters originally used the maps to determine risks and establish premiums, but now the maps are an excellent way to view urban growth and development. There are also maps for very small villages, including ones with as few as two hundred inhabitants.

Maps can show:

  • Building material (adobe, brick, frame, etc.)
  • Height or number of stories
  • Doors, windows, chimneys, elevators
  • Address and lot lines
  • Use (dwelling, hotel, church, etc.)
  • Street widths, water pipes, hydrants, and cisterns

The maps include text or abbreviations to describe the purpose of the building, whether a dwelling, a factory, or a business. It should be noted that the key to the map may not include all the abbreviations used on the map (at least the one I obtained recently did not). The maps are frequently drawn with a scale of 50 or 100 feet to one inch.

I was fortunate enough to find a fire insurance map of the town I live in dated 1928. Of course, a significant portion of town is not on the map, but I did learn several things while reviewing the map.

The names of several streets had been changed. The current elementary school was a combined elementary and high school. The downtown buildings (basically a two-block stretch) were generally in existence, but only two served the same function. One building doubled as a telephone exchange and a residence. The number of stories in each building is given, and one can see where one house apparently has a one-story section, a one-and-a-half-story section, and a two-story section. Both churches had electric lights and a furnace for heat. The fire department had steam heat. The city streets were 66 feet wide and the alleys were 16 feet across.

My map did not show doors on homes as some do, but I did learn where the grain elevator kept its coal, feed, and grain. The grain elevator had a capacity of 20,000 bushels and was located directly on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. There was also an indication of a well on the property.

The various subdivisions were listed by name, and street numbers were also included.

The maps are available on microfilm, and some libraries have actual copies of the maps in their collection. I was fortunate enough to use the map collection at the University of Illinois to locate the map I wanted. In this case, the reproduction department copied the map for me on one sheet of paper. The only drawback was that the map was approximately one yard on a side and had to be folded before I could take it home. There were nearly six square blocks on the map I copied. Maps for larger urban areas may cover numerous sheets.

Self-service copying of originals may not be allowed at some facilities. Since school was not in session the day I was at the library, the student worker took the map over to the reproduction department and had it copied for me while I waited. Use of the maps is subject to copyright restrictions (you'll notice a copyright notice on every map).

The following books are helpful finding aids:

Hoehn, R. Philip. Union List of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Held by Institutions in the United States and Canada. 2 vols. Published 1976.

Library of Congress. Geography and Map Division. Reference and Bibliography Section. Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress, Plans of North American Cities and Towns Produced by the Sanborn Map Company: A Checklist. Published 1981.

General Links
A nice summary and a list of libraries that have significant Sanborn collections for their region—from Berkeley.

The Library of Congress

Links to Sanborn Map Information organized by state:

Copyright 2000, Michael John Neill. Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing.  

(c) 2000,

used by the author on his website with permission.

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Articles by Michael John Neill

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