Deconstructing the Neighborhood: Using the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to Understand Communities

Session: S445, Time & Date: Saturday, 11 May 2019, 2:30 p.m.

Cheri Daniels

Many of us have used the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to locate our ancestors’ residences or to map out significant structures of a city. While they have served as a staple in our research, there is much more to these colorful maps than meets the eye. This session will dig a little deeper into the history of the Sanborn Maps, and explore the various editions out there.

It is widely believed that access to the Sanborn Maps occurs in one or two places – with most being available online – but this is a misconception and could prevent you from finding the map that details significant information.

Did you know that local editions of Sanborn Maps were altered by the insurance companies over many years? Their method of alteration involved applying thin strips of paper over the top of the exiting map, and then painting the structural changes by hand. This is where the need for additional searching comes into play. These altered editions were usually very unique and, in many cases, only retained by local repositories.

Did you also know that while census or city directories give addresses of your ancestor, you may not find the correct residence unless you consider street and numbering changes over time? The Sanborn Maps serve as wonderful tools for mapping out the correct residence of your ancestor with the many changes included in the various editions.

One really fun component of this session will make your experience unique. As we explore the various editions, and the changes represented in each one, you’ll have an opportunity to handle large physical reproductions of these maps to explore the many overlooked details. Follow along as we explore the mystery of the painter with a unique perspective, and how those little strips of paper tell the tale of bourbon production during prohibition.

BIO: Cheri Daniels, MSLS, is the Head of Reference Services and Editor of Kentucky Ancestors Online at the Kentucky Historical Society. With over 25 years of library and genealogy experience, this author, national speaker, genealogist, and librarian advocates for information literacy standards through her blog at Most recently, she was chosen to be a contributing author to the recently published book Genealogy and the Librarian by McFarland Publishers (2018).