Using Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for House Research

Screenshot 2015-08-19 10.18.56Have you used the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps while researching your house history? During 19th and early 20th centuries, fire insurance maps were periodically drawn up for cities and towns in the United States. These maps were commissioned by insurance companies in order to more accurately calculate fire risk. They depicted the layout of the town and the location of existing buildings, and were updated periodically. The maps offer a great deal of information, and can show the outline of each building, the building material, the number of stories, doors, windows and chimneys, the address and lot lines, street widths, water pipes, hydrants, and cisterns. The Sanborn Company was the largest, but not the only, fire insurance mapping company. The Sanborn Company was founded in 1867, and created fire insurance maps from 1867 until 1969.

The Library of Congress (LOC) has over 6,000 sheets from 28 states available on their website, which can be found here. If your state is not on the LOC site, check with your local library as well as local and state historical societies to see if they have the maps within their collections.

A new Youtube video on using the Sanborn maps has been posted by Digging Cincinnati History. Entitled “How to – Use the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps”, the video offers great tips on what you can find on these maps. While it is discussing Cincinnati and the maps available at the public library there, the suggestions about how to use the maps and what to look for are pertinent no matter where you live.

If you can find your house on one of these maps, you can really get a sense of the buildings on the property, their construction, and the surrounding neighborhood.

National Register of Historic Places on Wiki

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National Register of Historic Places on Wiki

Perform a Google search for the National Register of Historic Places, adding the word Wiki and the county that your home is located in to your search terms.  You may be surprised to find that your home is listed on the results page. For example, a Wiki search for National Register of Historic Places in Sterns County, Minnesota resulted in a list of 36 houses/buildings. A screen shot of the beginning of the list is shown above. Many of the results had links directly to more information about the property. How great would it be to see your house listed on a Wiki site?

Writing Your House History

House History Book

House History Book

When you have finished researching the history of your home, what do you plan to do with the information you have collected? Just like genealogical research, the information is not that helpful if it is locked away in a file cabinet or sitting in a folder somewhere on your computer. Your family stories deserve to be told, and so do the stories of your home. One way to preserve your hard work, and to make it more interesting to your family or the next owner of your home, is to make a photo book. There are many online services that make it easy to upload your photos, lay them out in a template, and add accompanying text. I personally have used Shutterfly and Snapfish to create photo books in the past, and my husband has been happy with the quality of Blurb. While at first glance the companies may seem a little expensive, there are always discount coupons available so you never need to pay full price for a book. Snapfish periodically offers a buy one, get two free deal, which is great if you want to make multiple copies of the book. It would be nice to leave a copy with a future homeowner, as well as give one to any previous homeowner who has been particularly helpful with your research. Or your local historical society might appreciate a copy.

Last week I received the house history book that I created on Shutterfly. I began with a very brief overview of the land that my town is located on, and included a few sentences about Alexander Russell’s Subdivision, which is where my lot is located. This was followed by a discussion about Claude Morton, who had the home built in 1902, and the house plans that he purchased from Ladies’ Home Journal. Since I had been fortunate enough to meet two of Claude’s great-grandaughters, I was able to include many family photos in the book. Next I moved on to the Lindholm family, who were the second owners of the home. I did not have any photos to share, but since I have spoken to two of the children who grew up in the house I was able to gather some background information to add to the story. As the third owners of the home, we have made the most significant modifications to the house as well as the gardens. I was able to include before and after pictures of each project. The finished book provides a wonderful documentary of our house over the course of its 113 year history.

Will you be writing your house history?