Visual Clues to Kentucky’s History: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map

Are you and your students sick and tired of run-of-the-mill research assignments? Do you have an interest in urban architecture, genealogy, business, history, sociology or anthropology? Would your students like to explore Louisville? The University Libraries has an online resource that can help! The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps were “created to assist fire insurance companies as they assessed the risk associated with insuring a particular property.” They are “large scale plans of a city or town, drawn at a scale of 50 feet to an inch.” Using them, one can trace the development and change in neighborhoods, particular blocks, or whole cities. UofL’s collection includes maps from all Kentucky towns and the dates range from 1867-1970.

Using the maps, students could explore why streets are named in particular ways, how land use has changed over time, how business has changed over time. How businesses used to be clustered and why. They could walk the current streets and compare them to the maps, noting changes or similarities. For example one map from 1892 in the Butchertown area of Louisville shows a meat packing plant and a brewery next to Beargrass Creek. Students could discuss why these businesses would have chosen that location, for example.

The level of detail on the maps is truly astonishing. “Textual information on construction details (for example, steel beams or reinforced walls) is often given on the plans while shading indicates different building materials. Extensive information on building use is given, ranging from symbols for generic terms such as stable, garage, and warehouse to names of owners of factories and details on what was manufactured in them. In the case of large factories or commercial buildings, even individual rooms and the uses to which they were put are recorded on the maps. Other features shown include pipelines, railroads, wells, dumps, and heavy machinery.”

small section of a Sanborn map

The Sanborn maps could be used in conjunction with the digital Kentucky map collection available from UofL Digital Collections. Check out the Sanborn maps here: Contact one of the Reference Librarians for help! 852-6747.

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