Monthly Archives: February 2011

What are Sanborn Maps?

I mentioned Sanborn maps briefly in posts for both HIST 696 and HIST 593, but I thought I should expand upon their importance to historians.

Perhaps a little history first!  The Sanborn comapny created maps for insurances purposes from the 1860s until the 1970s.  These maps were created for cities across the country and are very thorough in thier detail.  Their purpose was to map fire hazards which, as you can imagine, would have been important in city planning and determining insurance rates.  These maps were important to city devopers at the time because they provided a detailed sketch of their city.

Sample Key for a full color Sanborn Map

The Sanborn maps were created in full color with extreme detail on a building-by-building basis.  The maps are color codes to expreess the types of building materials, uses of a structure, and potential hazards.  The maps are extremely large and were often kept as part of city or county records.  This detail was key in determining insurance values and rates.

Color Sanborn Map of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan

Sanborns were updated on a regular basis to map growth of cities and changes in use of structures over time.  In Harrisonburg, for example, maps were completed in 1886, 1891, 1897, 1902, 1907, 1912, 1918, 1924, 1930 and 1961.  The detail of the maps tends to suffer as time went by and often the best maps are the earliest. The below map of a block on Liberty street in Harrisonburg (from 1886) shows each building and lists whether the structure was a business or a dwelling.  If a structure was occupied by a business, the name of that business is listed on the map.  Homes are marked with less detail, but on this map lists the occupant’s occupation as a “dressmaker.”  Such details are not common on Sanborn maps, but do sometimes occur on earlier examples.  However, maps from 1961 were still detailed, but primarily for businesses.

Block of Harrisonburg in 1886 – from Microfilm

If you access the Sanborn maps today, you will most likely encounter the microfilm versions that are available in many libraries.  These maps are black and white so much of the detail is lost, but that does not diminish their importance.  The color maps are hard to come by and are large and cumbersome to work with.  For most research projects the black and white maps are  sufficient, but that depends on the research.

How are these maps helpful to a historian?  There are many uses for these maps today.  Local historans use the maps to note the changes in business and industry in a given city over time. In addition to a block-by-block map, there are also maps of the entire city.  These maps are useful in mapping urban growth as well as changing patterns of industry and settlement patterns.  Sanborns can also be used by urban historians to expalin the growth patterns of cities in a particular period of time, or Cultural historians can use Sanborns to map social classes within a city and map their movements within it.

While those are just a few examples of their uses, I have used Sanborn maps to determine how certain structures have changed over time.  Were there additions? Were sections of the house removed?  Were porches added or removed?  All these questions and more can be answered by spending a few hours alone with a microfilm machine in the library!  The Historic Preservation course, along with the Public History course have really gotten me interested in architectural history and preservation.  The Sanborns are a key tool for preservationists, especially those researching structures for the National Register of Historic Places.  Sanborns are an important resource for my potential career and I am glad they are available in an accessible format.


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Let’s Go Racing! – NASCAR Style

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COURSES: HIST 593 – Historic Preservation

The final course of the semester is Historic Preservation.  Taught by Mr. Nash, we are learning about the preservation of historic structures.  In order to learn how to preserve the structure, we are first learning how they were constructed.  We have discussed the construction methods for a wood framed house and a brick house.  Next week we are going to start discussing the interiors of the house.

There is A LOT of reading for this class.  In addition to the two text books, Everyday Architecture of Mid-Atlantic (By Dr. Lanier) and Twenty Buildings Every Architect Should Understand, we are also required to read several books on reserve in the library and the National Park Services’ Preservation Briefs.  These are how-to guides for restoring and preserving aspects of historic structures.  There are 47 of these briefs available and we will read them all by the end of the semester.

We have not papers for the class.  We do have weekly presentations, however.  He paired each of us with another student and assigned a book or article important to the art of preservation.  We have to create a presentation to give in class that must last no longer than 30 minutes.  He has several goals with this project.  The first is to expose the class to these important works, but the other is to give each of us experience with presenting information.

“General Jones” House

The most important project of the semester is our “project house.”  The class was divided into two groups and we are each researching a house as if we were going to place it on the National Register of Historic Places.  The grad students are in charge of the group and we work with our group as well as oversee the work of the undergrads.  My group is working on the building that currently houses the Shen-Valley Band Company and is rumored to once be the home of Confederate General William E. Jones, who was killed in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  There is no evidence to support this claim, so it is up to our group to dig through Sanborn maps, deeds, and genealogy records to find out.  I will write more about the house itself at a later date.

This class has really gotten me excited about historic preservation and I think it is something that I might be interested in pursuing after I finish my Master’s Degree.  I am looking into summer internships and would really like to work in the preservation field.  It is a combination of the this course and Dr. Lanier’s Public History course that have led me to this conclusion.


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We remember Dale Earnhardt…

As we build up to the 2011 NASCAR season and the season opening Daytona 500 this Sunday, we remember Dale Earnhardt on was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 10 years ago today.  The anniversary of Earnhardt’s death has been widely covered in the media, but it is important to remember everything Dale Earnhardt contributed to NASCAR in life and in death.  Earnhardt’s hauling hay on Tuesday, racing on Sunday attitude is notably absent in NASCAR.  As is his hard line style of driving, but he appealed to a large number of fans and helped make NASCAR the largest spectator sport on the planet.  NASCAR fans old and new should take a moment today to reflect upon the life and contributions of Dale Earnhardt.

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11 Years…

Eleven years ago today, February 13, 2000 Charles Schulz’s final Peanuts comic strip was printed nationwide.  Sadly, Schulz passed away on February 12 and missed the conclusion of fifty years of work.  Today we remember the classic comic strip and its creator.

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COURSES: HIST 673 – Graduate Research and Writing Seminar

Many second year students in our program have called this course the most beneficial in the program.  On the surface this course, taught by Dr. Lanier, seems terrifying.  The course has no books and requires no outside reading, but within the 15 weeks of the semester each student will write two twenty-page papers which must be written on a related topic.  Many students, such as myself, are using this as an opportunity to write two chapters of our thesis, which is the smart thing to do since we all have to write one anyway.

The course outline is pretty simple.  Each week, three students in the class turn their paper in on the Friday before the class period.  The rest of the class has the weekend to read the other student’s papers and we have to write a short review for the student and for Dr. Lanier (she just wants to be sure we are actually reading!).  In class, we just discuss the papers as a class with the students.  We offer suggestions, criticisms, and compliments.

This class is helpful in many ways.  First, we all get some experience reviewing the work of others who are writing in different fields.  Second, we are expanding our knowledge on topics that we may have no experience with.  History is very diverse and it is great to read what everyone is working on.  And that is the most important part of the course.  We get to read each other’s work.  We have been together now for a semester and we have an idea of what the others are researching, but we actually get to read and respond to the work they have done so far.  Some students have more developed ideas than others and at this point that is fine.  Others know exactly what they are writing about and have done much of the documentary research.  I, however, am somewhere in between.  I have a very solid notion of where my thesis will go and I am using this class to begin my thesis work.

Incidentally, my first paper was due yesterday and we will discuss it next week along with two other papers.  I completed and turned my paper in on Thursday, and I really do look forward to the feedback.  I have a rough idea for my second paper and for my thesis and the feedback I receive next week could change that route.  But that is not a bad thing.  It is great having 16 historically oriented and intelligent fellow historians to bounce ideas off of and receive feedback from.  I think the second year students are absolutely correct in their assessment that this course is the most beneficial since writing is at the center of graduate research.

Next week I will take a look at HIST 593 – Historic Preservation.  A great class!  Until then…


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NEW VIDEO: SS United States Title Transfer

On February 1, 2011, the SS United States Conservancy took over as owners of the SS United States.  An event was held in Philadelphia and the video of the event has been added to the SS United States page and is presented here:

Congratulations to the Conservancy!

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