Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps at the University of Virginia
by Chris Nehls
In August, the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center (Geostat) at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library launched a web site that offers users a window eighty years into Charlottesville's past. The site, titled"Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps at the University of virginia" and located at http://fisher. lib. virginia. edu/sanborn, includes over forty different, highly detailed, hand-drawn maps of Charlottesville produced by the Sanborn Map Company in 1920 and currently held in the university's Special Collections Library. Viewers can browse the images using either a clickable map index or an index of 1920 street and building names.
Sanborn maps provide a useful resource to researchers in fields ranging from social history, genealogy, architectural history, economics, and urban planning because they were drawn at the extraordinarily large scale of 50 feet to an inch on 21-by-25 inch sheets. Originally produced for fire insurance adjusters and city governments, these maps describe the buildings and infrastructure of each city. They detailed the location and material composition of most buildings within a city or town, noted the strength of fire departments and the location of water and gas mains, and labeled most public buildings by name, including churches and businesses. Buildings were color-coded according to their construction materials. The work of coloring maps often fell to individual artists, who painted on lithographs (often themselves hand-drawn) as printing often proved uneconomical for small orders.1
The Sanborn Company produced thousands of maps of cities and towns across the country. Growing steadily from its founding in 1867 by D. A. Sanborn, the company expanded by systematizing an often chaotic map-producing process. The company codified its system of standards for accuracy and design in a volume published in 1905.2 Systemization added a level of reliability to Sanborn's product that allowed it to overwhelm its competitors and sell its product to national and regional underwriting associations. It maintained its headquarters in the New York suburb of Pelham and had regional offices in San Francisco and Chicago. By 1920, Sanborn held a virtual monopoly on the map industry and by the late 1930s the company had surveyed 13, 000 towns. Fire insurance maps, therefore, are commonly referred to simply as Sanborn maps. Maps for an entire town were sold in folios that cost from $12 to $200 in the 1930s. 3
As more and more of the nation's population moved from the countryside to urban areas at the turn of the century, the Sanborn Company found itself having to cope with demographic change. The company marked gradual changes, noted by yearly surveys, by pasting small stickers or patches on existing maps,4 but often the rate of change was so great that towns had to be resurveyed frequently. Charlottesville provides a fine example of the problem Sanborn faced in keeping its maps up to date. The company produced its initial Charlottesville edition in 1886 and returned in 1902. However, the town's booming population made it necessary for survey teams to return in 1907, 1913, and 1920. Interestingly, the year 1920 marks the first time in American history when the census found that the majority of U. S. citizens lived in urban areas. Sanborn produced its final paper edition of the city in 1937. After the 1930s, Sanborn updated many maps by pasting on smaller drawings instead of constantly redrawing whole sheets. The Depression cut into Sanborn's production, and afterWorld War II insurers began creating their own survey departments, signaling the end of Sanborn's importance in the industry. Computerization in the 1950s and 1960s dried up the market for paper insurance maps.
As a historical source, Geostat's 1920 web project offers valuable research resources for early-century Charlottesville, but it also demonstrates the maps' flaws as primary materials. These maps were produced for insurers who did not particularly care about areas of town their offices would not cover. Therefore, while the maps depict most of Charlottesville's major business district and many of its residential areas, they do not show all of Charlottesville in 1920. Areas that were not heavily developed are not depicted. Local historians also will note that predominantly African American communities such as Fifeville (on the northside of town between the university and downtown) are not shown on the maps, although that area of town was well built-up at the time.
In addition to the maps, the Geostat site also includes a key to the symbols used in these maps, a bibliography for further research, an index to similar maps on microfilm, and a brief historical essay. The site was developed by Mike Furlough, Spencer Graf, and Chris Nehls of the Geostat Center with assistance from the staff of Special Collections and the Early American Fiction Project. The 1920 map book was photographed using a Tarsia Technical Industries Prisma digital camera at a resolution of 600 dots-per-inch. Geostat hopes to add the 1907 Charlottesville edition, which Special Collections also possesses, to the project soon. Special Collections holds additional Sanborn maps of Staunton, Tappahanock, Augusta, Scottsville, and Waynesboro. Geostat's web site provides an index to Alderman Library's microfilm collection of Sanborn maps, which includes Washington, D. C. and all Virginia municipalities. These microfilms are sold by Chadwyck Healy and University Publications of America. The microfilm index allows users to search or browse the index for particular towns in the state, returning the publisher, reel number, number of sheets, and year for each Sanborn map edition contained within the microfilm collection. Alderman Library's Government Information Center holds twenty-nine reels of these maps.
1 Walter W. Ristow, Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress (Washington, D. C: Library of Congress, 1981), p. 6.
2 Sanborn Map Company, Description and Utilization of the Sanborn Map (New York, 1953).
3 Ristow, pg. 5-6, "Map Monopoly," Fortune (February 1937): 41-42.
4 KimKeister, "Charts of Change," Historic Preservation 45, no. 3 (May/June 1993).