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1000s of historical Sanborn insurance maps. Cause . . . the more maps the better

I spent yesterday in Topeka, working with KSDE social studies guru Don Gifford and a few others such as @MsKoriGreen and @NHTOYMc to develop the next state assessment. Still in alpha version with beta testing in 2018-2019 but lots of fun talking about what it should look like.

It’s gonna be very cool btw – student focused, locally measured, aligned to historical thinking / literacy skills, and problem based. Look for an update on latest test goodness soon.

So we were all over the place in our conversation. Part of our discussion centered on ways to integrate all of the social studies into the work students will be doing. Including geography. So my mind went to maps. Really cool historical maps. And what it might look like when we use really cool historical maps with kids. So I got a bit sidetracked and did a quick interwebs search for really cool historical maps.

Piece of advice. Don’t do this unless you’ve got more than a few minutes to kill. Cause you will end up in a rabbit hole of geography map goodness. Plus I saved you the trouble.

During my poking around, I ran across the Library of Congress Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps collection. It’s got all the cool historical mapness you’ll need today.

The collection has nearly 25,000 maps, which depict the structure and use of buildings in cities across the country. The LOC plans on adding maps until 2020, for a total of approximately 500,000.

The LOC collection features maps published prior to 1900 and include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Alaska is also online, with maps published through the early 1960s.  By 2020, all the states will be online, showing maps from the late 1880s through the early 1960s.

But . . . you can find later Sanborn maps, from all the states, in a few other places. The collection at the University of California Berkeley is probably the best but check out the LOC list of individual states as well. (You may have to poke around a bit to find the correct links. The Kansas link was old and I had to do a search for “Sanborn” on the University of Kansas library page to find what I was looking for.)

The Library of Congress suggests that the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

are a valuable resource for genealogists, historians, urban planners, teachers or anyone with a personal connection to a community, street or building.  The maps depict more than 12,000 American towns and cities.  They show the size, shape and construction materials of dwellings, commercial buildings, factories and other structures.  They indicate both the names and width of streets, and show property boundaries and how individual buildings were used.  House and block numbers are identified.  They also show the location of water mains, fire alarm boxes and fire hydrants.

In the 19th century, specialized maps were originally prepared for the exclusive use of fire insurance companies and underwriters.  Those companies needed accurate, current, and detailed information about the properties they were insuring. The Sanborn Map Company was created around 1866 in the United States in response to this need. The insurance industry eventually phased out use of the maps and Sanborn stopped producing updates in the late 1970s.

But start thinking about the different ways you might be able to use these maps. Start with the Library’s analysis tool and guide your class through a basic map conversation. (The National Archives tool is also good.)

Then try these ideas:

  • Continuity and change over time including comparing to current maps.
  • Compare and contrast geographically different areas of the country.
  • Compare and contrast the Sanborn maps with panoramic maps of the same place.
  • Document economic impact and changes by looking at business types.
  • Growth and decline of populations. Who moved here? Who left here? Why?
  • Impact of humans on the environment.
  • Build context of an area while discussing historical events.
  • Generate models of perfect towns and cities then compare to actual towns and cities.
  • Use as story starters and writing prompts. Who lived here? Why? What did they do? What was their life like? Would different types of people lived in different parts of town? Why?
  • Find and use census data of the areas mapped. Track ethnicities and employment.

Cause you can never have too many maps.

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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

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