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One of the small but often heard complaints about Sanborn Fire Insurance maps is that they are available online in black and white. They were originally very colorful with the colors meaning specific things to the users. When however they were microfilmed, which is the basis of the present digital versions, it was decided to do it in black and white, which was somewhat less expensive. This was a decision that has pretty much since then been thought of as yet another “penny wise and pound foolish” decision.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, they are maps, frequently of urban areas and towns, that describe the buildings of the area, including the materials they are made of, how many floors there are, and what is the use of the building (e.g., grocery store on first floor, dwellings on other floors). By selling these maps to insurance companies and updating them regularly, the insurance companies did not have to send agents out to determine the risks of fire before they set the insurance premiums. Thus the insurance companies saved time and money. For family historians there can be a lot of useful information on these maps, such as nearby churches and schools, companies close to their ancestors’ home, government offices, and even entertainment centers such as theaters and bowling alleys.
However, the Library of Congress has announced that it is digitizing in glorious original color their Sanborn map collection. They began last year and are working through the pre1900s maps first and at present have 3,483 maps digitized and available online. You can find this collection at the Library of Congress’sSanborn Map site. Thus far the state of Illinois has one (1) map online and it is of Tampico, Illinois but the Library of Congress promises more maps are coming.