Sanborn fire insurance map collection online

December 4, 2018
Julie Sweetkind-Singer
Mission Beach Amusement Park

Sanborn maps are a favorite of any map librarian.  What's not to like about them?  They give us a view into the history of our country in a way that few other maps do.  They show the growth and decline of towns and cities.  They track the changing use of buildings over time.  At times they tell us who lived and worked in specific areas.  We peek into the past to understand what kept people entertained, be it an amusement park, a skating rink, a movie theater, or a bar.  The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company began producing these maps in the late 19th century for towns and cities throughout the United States in order to provide information to insurers about the composition and use of buildings to allow for the correct underwriting of policies.  The maps include: building footprints; building material shown by color, height and number of stories; uses such as dwellings, hotels, churches, and chicken coops; street widths, water pipes, hydrants, and cisterns.  This provides historians, genealogists, urban planners, and ethnologist with a wealth of information about the nation's past.  

A handful of libraries hold large collections of these maps, more own a smattering.  I would say that Stanford Libraries hold a bit more than a smattering, but nothing like comprehensive coverage of any given area.  We hold in paper about 230 sets of maps that range in size from a single page to multiple volumes covering the city of San Francisco.  We have scanned the items that are out of copyright - 47 areas in all including two atlases held at the David Rumsey Map Center showing Hallowell, Maine from December 1889 and Frankfort, Kentucky dated September 1907.

While we may not hold a huge number, we do have some gems.  One set of maps is of Mission Beach, California from 1929.  Included on page 7 is the Mission Beach Amusement Center  build by business mogul John D. Spreckels in 1925.  The park is massive and includes the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster and a Natatorium for bathing.  There is a ballroom capable of holding parties for 5,000 dancers, a roller skating rink, a fun house, a shooting gallery, a "wonderland", "honeymoon trail", and a "skooter" all near the concession stands and merry go round.  Only the Giant Dipper and the Natatorium, now called The Plunge, remain.  

The Pacific Southwest Exposition in Long Beach was captured on a Sanborn map, which I find amazing as the Expo lasted not much longer than a blink of an eye.  The map is dated August 1928.  The Exposition opened on July 27, 1928.  It was designed to look like a Tunisian City with courtyards and a Muezzin Tower.  Like many World's Fairs and expositions, this one had pavilions highlighting foreign countries.  On the map we see areas dedicated to Denmark, New Zealand, Japan, France, Bolivia, Persia and Spain.  People could also go to the movies and visit buildings devoted to textiles, marine and transportation, the arts, education, and industry.  Over 1,000,000 people visiting the Expo before it closed on September 3, 1928.  The buildings were not made to last and indeed they didn't.  On that last day, the dome of the Fine Arts building collapsed with four people severely injured by the wreckage.  The collapse dampened some spirits, but the closing ceremonies went on until midnight with operatic singing, speeches, and moonlit walks.  

Stanford's collection is now online in an exhibit  that allows you to browse, view, and download the scanned maps from the collection.  Each town or city has its own browsable section.  An interactive index makes it easy to look for specific streets or neighborhoods when it takes multiple sheets to cover a region.  Enjoy exploring!

This exhibit was created using Spotlight at Stanford, a layer of services that integrates with Stanford Libraries' discovery, access, and preservation infrastructure.  Spotlight at Stanford is available for use by members of the Stanford community who wish to enhance user engagement with their digital materials.  If you are interested in learning more about Spotlight at Stanford, please contact the service team.