Title Page Lettering of Fire Insurance Maps

This is the first in a series of explorations for Anchor Editions, my new project where I find interesting, obscure, and cool art that I wish I had hanging on my wall. I’m guessing that you might like it too, so I’ve carefully printed a limited number of copies which you can order now—just 100 prints of each size. I’ve written more about Anchor Editions here if you’re curious.

Imagine opening something utterly utilitarian—like a manual for a new kitchen appliance—and seeing an ornately-decorated, hand-drawn title page inviting you to open and explore the following pages—each of which were carefully drawn and printed, and then colored in by hand. The chances of a company putting this much effort and care into even a title page are almost zero today. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps™. from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The last place you would think to look for beautiful lettering would be a book of maps printed for insurance companies, used to calculate fire risk in order to write policies for building owners. But each page of maps in these 100-year-old volumes is beautiful, and the title pages are stunning.

I first learned about these maps when doing research for packaging design for my wife’s pastry business. I kept coming across colorful maps that had beautifully-drawn details, titles, and legends. The maps are works of art themselves—each colored by hand, some of them with cut-and-pasted revisions layered on over the years. But what really delighted me were the title pages that came with volumes for larger cities. Some quick searching led to the excellent overviews posted a few years ago by BibliOdyssey and later Christian Annyas. Christian’s collection of titles and details is a lot of fun to browse.

About the Maps

The maps date back to 1867 when a surveyor named D.A. Sanborn created an atlas of Boston for use by insurance agencies to assess the fire risk of buildings in the city. Sanborn was commissioned by Aetna to create insurance maps of cities in Tennessee and soon started a company creating fire insurance maps of other cities across the country.

Sanborn’s company continued to create maps of over 13,000 towns. The maps were printed in the factory in New York, and since only a few copies of each town’s maps were printed, the maps were colored by hand. Because new copies of the maps were expensive to print and acquire, the Sanborn™ company also offerred correction services, which involved Sanborn™ representatives coming out to business that owned older maps and pasting small pieces onto of the maps every few years as the buildings and geographies changed over time. After World War II, the insurance industry practices had gradually changed, and eventually these maps were no longer needed. The Sanborn™ company still exists today as a provider of digital GIS maps and systems.

Smaller towns have a few sheets of maps, and sometimes a decorative name written in one corner, but larger cities often have several volumes of a hundred pages or so, each covering a section of the city, and in many of the volumes, the cities get their own title page with ornate and unique lettering showing the names of city and state, along with the company name and copyright details.

Getting My Hands on 100-Year-Old Maps

The Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress has the largest collection of Sanborn Maps™, since the company regularly deposited new copies of its maps for copyright registration. While most of the 700,000 map sheets are cataloged in low-resolution black and white form accessible through a subscription database, there are only about 6,000 sheets available digitally through the Library of Congress web site, and of those, only a few are the title pages. Several libraries across the country have digital copies of their own regional maps, but in many cases, access is limited to local residents.

So, I got a library card, and headed straight for the basement of the Madison Building of the Library of Congress where the Geography and Map Division is housed. With help from the reference librarians, I pulled a copy of the 1913 San Francisco map, which I had been curious to see in person since there don’t seem to be any high resolution scans of it online. When I flipped open the cover, I was delighted to see the beautiful title page in excellent condition. I flipped through the pages and pored over the index map of the section of the city, admiring all the great details drawn on the map. I spent the rest of the afternoon going through the database of black-and-white scans to find several other maps and title pages that I was interested in, and made a list of sheets and volumes to request later.

The Reading Room has some document scanners for copying large works into PDF form, but they are designed for text, and not as suitable for detailed media like maps. I came back the next week with a camera and a tripod and got to work taking pictures of several sheets that I wasn’t able to track down elsewhere.

Printing The Editions

The lettering on the map titles is unique and beautiful, and as soon as I saw that San Francisco title page, I knew I wanted a print of it hanging on my wall. I figured you might, too, so I’ve carefully adapted a few titles from a few cities and made them available as the first prints for this new venture of mine—Anchor Editions. They a great fit for what I hope to do here at Anchor Editions—find interesting art, carefully print it in limited editions, and make the prints available at a reasonable price.

These particular prints are made with archival pigment ink on 300 gsm Moab Entrada Rag, an acid-free, 100% cotton rag paper. This is a beautiful and heavy textured paper in a natural white tint, free of optical brightening agents.

Each print is numbered by hand in the bottom-left corner, and subtly embossed in the lower-right corner. The smaller prints ship flat, carefully packed in an archival sleeve, and the larger prints are rolled with archival interleaving paper and shipped in a heavy-duty poster tube.


“Sanborn” and “Sanborn Maps” are registered trademarks of The Sanborn Library, LLC

Adapted from originals in the collections of the Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress