Location, Location, Old Location: Using Historic Maps to Explore House History
Realtors like to send their clients off with a small house-warming gift after Closing. Although bourbon is always nice, another thoughtful gift for new old house owners is a framed copy of an historic map showing the location of their new home. Wondering where you find them and what can you learn?
Where To Find Historic Maps
Historic maps are useful for understanding the development of your property. Fire insurance maps, in particular, are an excellent resource for historical research, planning, and preservation.
Old maps are found primarily in the archives and special collections of town halls, and public and university libraries.
While a lot of maps exist on microfiche, more and more historic maps of all kinds are available in high-resolution, digital format through various sources. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, for example, is in the process of digitizing local maps—including Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps—that are available here: digital library
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Sanborn maps were originally created for assessing fire insurance liability in urban areas. These maps include detailed information about town and building information from about 1867 to as recent as 2007. They are characterized by standard symbolization and a very popular aesthetic appeal—so not only is a Sanborn of your street interesting from a historical perspective, it looks neat too!
I actually have copies of the 1904 Sanborn hanging on my wall. Since the street was split by the page break, I was “forced” to use frame both pages…the framed pair of maps looks great!
Sanborn maps are large-scale lithographed street plans at a scale of 50 feet to one inch. The maps were packaged in volumes and then updated using overlays until the subsequent volume was produced.
Larger cities like Cincinnati, which had a population as high as 325,000 at the turn of the twentieth century, had multiple volumes. The volumes each have a decorative title page and several kinds of indexes with streets and addresses, names, schools, and businesses, and a master index showing the mapped area and the sheet (or page) number for each large-scale map.
Sanborn maps are highly accurate. Features and information shown include:
- Property boundaries
- Street names and addresses
- Outlines of each building and outbuilding
- Locations of windows and doors
- Fire walls
- Type of building use
- Building material (wood, stone, brick)
- A variety of other elements such as fire hydrants, water and gas mains and even sprinkler systems
In the beginning of each volume is a detailed key to the symbols and coding used on the maps. Color was important, so if you are examining digitized black-and-white maps, you are missing out!
To Better Understand Your (Old) Location
To better understand the development of your historic property, looking at through Sanborn maps spanning several decades can be very enlightening. It is possible to learn such things like when additions were added (or removed), when outbuildings were constructed (or demolished), if the property boundaries have remained the same, and even when nearby buildings were constructed.
I highly recommend a trip to the public library on a rainy day or some quality internet exploration to see what you can find out about YOUR old home.