Fire insurance maps were used from the late 1800s through the 1930s or later by insurance companies to determine how much to charge for insurance coverage. They needed to know the construction materials for the building, size of the building, and distance from water and a fire department. The maps were drawn and colored by hand.
Several years ago I attended a free session on Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps sponsored by the State Library of Iowa. The State Library generally offers an assortment of free classes, open to the public, during National Library Week in April.
In 2010 Dave and I visited the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, DC and took photos of all of the Sanborn maps in their collection for Indianola. The LOC even furnishes a ladder and table layout for researchers to take these photos. Access to view and photograph the maps was not a problem.
Then last year a local insurance agency had an open house and a map was on display. As I was admiring the map, the owner asked me if I knew what it was. He was a little surprised when I told him it was a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. He didn’t expect me to know.
The following book recently caught my eye at the Iowa Genealogical Society (IGS):
Curtis, Peter H., Richard S. Green, Edward N. McConnell, compilers. Fire Insurance Maps of Iowa Cities and Towns: A List of Holdings. Iowa City: Iowa State Historical Department, 1983.
This 50-page publication lists all fire insurance maps believed by the compilers to be in existence in 1983 for three commercial agencies: Sanborn Company (S), Bennett Company (B), and Iowa Insurance Bureau (I). The listing provides the number of pages for each map and also indicates where the map can be found: State Historical Society (HS), University of Iowa (UI), Iowa State Archives (IA), and Library of Congress (LC). (The Assistant Archivist at SHSI thinks the reference to State Historical Society may mean the Iowa City facility of SHSI and the reference to Iowa State Archives may indicate the SHSI facility in Des Moines as this was about the time that the two facilities merged.)
The listings are arranged alphabetically by city. Fire insurance maps were often “updated,” instead of being completely redrawn. Therefore, sometimes more than one date is included, i.e., Jan. 1913-Oct. 1932. The first date listed is the date the map was originally drawn; the second date indicates the final update.
Since visiting IGS, I have discovered this booklet can be downloaded from the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI) website at: http://www.iowahistory.org/libraries/research_collections/special_collections/fire_maps.html
When I checked the SHSI online catalog, I found that apparently the complete set of maps was filmed in 1985 and it makes up 4,500 pages on microfiche. According to the catalog these fiche are available at both SHSI facilities (Des Moines and Iowa City). I also checked http://www.worldcat.org and found the fiche should also be available at Parks Library, Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Note that these are black & white images, therefore, the color coding on the originals is not discernable on fiche. If you are a resident of Iowa, you can view the black & white Iowa only maps online through the State Library of Iowa website once you get a free State Library Card. Link to State Library of Iowa: http://www.statelibraryofiowa.org/. As near as I can tell, this site does not include the Bennett Company maps or the Iowa Insurance Bureau maps.
Some large libraries have all the Sanborn maps for the United States available to patrons, via digital black & white images. For example, Midwest Genealogy Center, part of the Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, Missouri, has the full collection for card-holding patrons on their website.
While many of the original maps are located at SHSI (either Des Moines or Iowa City), access is limited to special permission for special needs. General public access is not allowed.
The original maps are awesome to study because of the color coding for the various kinds of structures, as well as the other notations about number of stories, and other symbols. I recommend doing an internet search for “Library of Congress Sanborn Maps” and reading the “Overview” to better understand the colors and keys. Then, take a look at some of the 6,000 maps that the Library has digitized and placed online. Unfortunately, no Iowa maps have been included yet. When we visited, I asked what it would take to get some Iowa maps online sooner than later. They would do it for a price, but as I remember the cost was prohibitive.
Here is a link to the Library of Congress website where the colorful Sanborn map images are located: http://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps/about-this-collection/
Remember every copy of every map was drawn and colored by hand! These were created before copy machines!