Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Typography

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Typography

Title pages, headings and letterforms clipped, cropped and isolated
from maps and map publications issued between about 1880 and 1920.

"D. A. Sanborn, a young surveyor from Somerville, Massachusetts, was engaged in 1866 by the Aetna Insurance Company to prepare insurance maps for several cities in Tennessee. [..] Before working for Aetna, Sanborn conducted surveys and compiled an atlas of the city of Boston titled 'Insurance Map of Boston, Volume 1, 1867'. [..] The atlas includes twenty-nine large plates showing sections of Boston at the scale of 50 feet to an inch. It is believed to include the earliest insurance maps published by Sanborn.

The success of the Boston atlas and the commission from Aetna must have impressed the young surveyor with the importance of detailed and specialized maps for the fire insurance industry. Following his assignment in Tennessee for Aetna, he established the D. A. Sanborn National Insurance Diagram Bureau in New York City in 1867. 11 From this modest beginning grew the specialized company that has compiled and published maps for the fire insurance industry for more than a hundred years." [source]

Albany, Georgia - April, 1920

Allentown, Pennsylvania - March 1885

Allentown, Pennsylvania 1897
Allentown, Pennsylvania - 1897

Allentown, Pennsylvania October 1891
Allentown, Pennsylvania - October, 1891

Allentown, Pennsylvania 1911
Allentown, Pennsylvania - 1911

Ansonia, Connecticut March 1884
Ansonia, Connecticut - 1884
[example full map]

Aspen, Colorado - February, 1893

Boston, Massachusetts 1867
Boston, Massachusetts - 1867

Brunswick, Georgia - July, 1920

Charlottesville, Virginia - October, 1907

Cincinnati, Ohio 1904
Cincinnati, Ohio - 1904

Colorado Springs, Colorado - 1907

Columbia, South Carolina June 1919
Columbia, South Carolina - June, 1919

Cripple Creek*, Colorado - December, 1908

Denver, Colorado - 1887

Frankfort, Kentucky September 1907
Frankfort, Kentucky - September, 1907

Greenville, South Carolina June 1920a1
Greenville, South Carolina - June 1920

Hallowell, Maine December 1889
Hallowell, Maine - December, 1889

Indianapolis, Indiana 1898
Indianapolis, Indiana - 1898

Indianapolis, Indiana 1914
Indianapolis, Indiana - 1914

Indianapolis, Indiana 1915
Indianapolis, Indiana - 1915

Kansas City, Missouri December 1895
Kansas City, Missouri - December, 1895

Kansas City, Missouri July 1909
Kansas City, Missouri - July, 1909

Manhattan, New York 1911
Manhattan, New York - 1911

Mexico City, Mexico 1905
Mexico City, Mexico - 1905

St. Joseph, Missouri February 1897
St Joseph, Missouri - February, 1897

St. Joseph, Missouri September 1911
St Joseph, Missouri - September, 1911

St. Louis, Missouri August 1909
St Louis, Missouri - August, 1909

Salt Lake City, Utah 1911
Salt Lake City, Utah - 1911

Spartanburg, South Carolina 1923
Spartanburg, South Carolina - 1923

Springfield, Missouri December 1910
Springfield, Missouri - 1910

Tampa, Hillsborough County, Florida, 1915
Tampa, Florida - 1915

Thomasaville, Georgia - May, 1920

Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) 1885
Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) - 1885

Washington DC 1903
Washington DC - 1903

[Click through for large, and often very large, versions. All images above have been fairly extensively background cleaned of stains, stamps and age-related wear and tear (especially those that remain fairly dirty, following the "less is best" restoration motto)]

Sanborn's fire insurance enterprise produced not only excellent and detailed urban maps, but they also maintained an elegant aesthetic in the headings and legends on the maps themselves, and in the title pages of the (larger) city volumes. The ornamental flair is diverse - I don't think any of the examples above repeat type styles - and lends an air of individuality and refinement to each of the towns surveyed.

Although this sort of artistic embellishment was unlikely to have increased map sales on its own, it's a charming addition which will have perhaps made the purchasers feel a sense of pride and a little more secure about their own unique town. And it's certainly in keeping with the cartographic tradition of decorative trimmings.

There are no comprehensive open portals to the Sanborn fire insurance maps. The images above were obtained from many sources, beginning with the links attached to the Wikipedia Sanborn Maps article.

The Library of Congress has a fairly large site devoted to the subject, but there are only a minimal number of accessible maps.

The LoC collection is, however, available via institutional subscription:
"ProQuest Information and Learning's Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970 provides academic and public libraries digital access to more than 660,000 large-scale maps of more than 12,000 American towns and cities"

In digitising their collection in 2002 (which I don't think is available on the open web), the University of Utah outlined their process and included this paragraph:
"Copyright Issues:

No discussion of digital projects is complete without tiptoeing into the quagmire of intellectual property law. The Sanborn Library, LLC owns the largest and most complete collection (over 1.2 million) of historical Sanborn Maps™, and copies from that collection are sold through Environmental Data Resources Inc.9 Prior to beginning our project, Marriott Library Assistant Director for Special Collections, Walter Jones, contacted the Sanborn Library, LLC and requested permission to scan and post all 3,000 maps of Utah in our collection. Permission was denied, and we limited our scanning to those maps in the public domain, i.e., through 1922. There may be hope for scanning more maps, however, as current law states that materials published from 1923-1963 and whose copyright was not renewed are now in the public domain.10

After the digital collection was posted, The Sanborn Library LLC informed us that even the terms "Sanborn" and "Sanborn Maps" are registered trademarks of The Sanborn Library, LLC and that we were required to insert trademark symbols on every occurrence of those words on our website, as well as a statement of that ownership on our main page. We complied."

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