Researching Your Property

Part 1, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

(by Roy Hampton, originally posted January 12, 2012)

If you’re interested in researching the history of an older building, you might be happy to find that quite a few free resources are available to you, both online and at local public libraries and government offices. One important source of information that is often overlooked is the Sanborn Fire Insurance map collection. Based on our extensive use of these maps for our projects, the staff at Hardlines Design Company has prepared a free, downloadable guide on how to use the Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) to access online Sanborn maps. This guide is the first in a series of free HDC guides or blogs–future entries will explain more about how to research older properties and their occupants using resources like city directories, archival maps, old photographs, deed and tax records, or just how to eyeball your property for physical clues that indicate changes.

First produced in 1867 by the Sanborn Insurance Company to assess the risks of buildings, Sanborn maps provide a snapshot of the overall character of a building or neighborhood. If you’re researching the history of your house or business and are interested in when the property was built, what modifications have been made to it, and when different parts of the building were constructed, then you might find Sanborn maps quite useful. Or, if you’re studying the history and development of a particular city, town, or neighborhood, these maps can provide good evidence about the history of the community and how its buildings evolved (see sample below). The maps have long been useful to surveyors in the cultural resources business, but they are also freely available to individuals who just want to know more about the history of the property or community where they live or work.

Sample: Two Sanborn maps (from 1887 and 1922) are shown below to illustrate the kind of information these maps can yield. Each map is of the east side of High Street at the intersection of Goodale Avenue, in the Short North area of Columbus. By comparing the two maps, you can see that in 1887, High Street was a mix of small commercial buildings, duplexes, and single-family houses, but by 1922, larger commercial buildings dominated the area. More subtle changes are visible on the other east-west streets shown on the maps.

1887 Sanborn map:

1922 Sanborn map: