Fire insurance maps are valuable to much historic research because they often provide evidence of change over time. Specific changes in an individual site such as when a building was expanded or torn down, can often be dated within a reasonably accurate time frame, depending on how many different map editions for that city are available. Change can also be examined in a larger geographic entity such as a community or whole town. The growth of towns is reflected on maps through the addition of new coverage in successive editions.
Social or economic change is often reflected in fire insurance maps as well. As a neighborhood aged, for instance, building styles sometimes changed, as in the example of Santa Fe, New Mexico, below. A community's economic development can often be deduced from such information as whether houses were replaced by businesses, went from being single-family dwellings to apartments, or whether the type of business activity in a building changed.
Two areas have been selected to illustrate the way fire insurance maps can be used to study change. The interpretations presented here are not intended to be authoritative. They are merely designed to provide insight into how fire insurance maps can be used for different purposes.
Sanborn Time Series: Coney Island, New York
One of the most famous places in America is the beach and entertainment complex on Coney Island in the southern part of Brooklyn, New York. It developed first in the nineteenth century as a place for swimming and relaxation, with some hotels, restaurants, and dance halls. Over the decades, Coney Island emerged as an entertainment zone featuring thrill and theme rides, games, novelty stores, and restaurants. Most early amusement features were constructed of wood and the fire of 1911 eradicated many of them. As the metropolitan area grew, pressure to maximize land use made the land on Coney Island vulnerable to developers. Some of the rides and entertainments became stale or out-of-date and were replaced by newer and more exciting fare.
Coney Island's recreational developments were valuable, so fire insurance maps of the area were critical to the underwriting firms that insured the buildings and rides. Today those maps provide an extremely detailed picture of Coney Island at different stages in its history. The maps in this section highlight one of the several collections of rides and amusements found along the beach.
To explore how fire insurance maps can be used to study change in a given area, a portion of the map of Coney Island has been reproduced from three different editions. The area depicted is due west of Seaside Park and encompasses the land from Surf Avenue to the shore between roughly Fifth and Sixteenth Streets.
Comparing maps of an area over time can be challenging for several reasons. Instead of merely updating the coverage of existing sheets the Sanborn Map Company often completely redrew and renumbered sheets from one edition to the next instead of merely updating the coverage of existing sheets. This means that the area covered by one sheet may be divided among two or three sheets in a later edition. Cities also occasionally made wholesale changes in the layout of streets and street names (not to mention renumbering the addresses of individual buildings), thus making it difficult to find points of reference common to different editions. Where profound changes occurred, it can be difficult to relate the new structures to the ones that they replaced.
In this series, sheet 22 from the 1906 edition corresponds to sheet 57 in the 1930 and 1950 editions; sheet 23 in 1906 corresponds to sheet 58 in the later editions; and sheet 24 in 1906 corresponds to sheet 47 in 1930 and 1950.
Coney Island, 1895
Even a casual comparison of the 1895 sheets with those from later editions reveals three major ways in which nineteenth-century Coney Island differed from the twentieth-century community: virtually the entire area featured wood frame construction; the "amusement" aspect of Coney Island was not yet developed, as most businesses were oriented toward bathing, dining, or dancing; and it was not a particularly congested place.
Ocean Avenue and the Bowery were characterized by small stores and a few large dance halls. No rides or similar amusements were indicated on the maps. There were a number of dwellings and a few small hotels. Only two carousels and three or four "chutes" or similar amusement rides are indicated, and those appear to be rather simple. A number of bath houses are situated next to what appears to be a rather substantial beach. The most prominent structures in the area are a three-hundred-foot-high observation tower and a wooden building shaped like an elephant with a pagoda atop its back.
Coney Island, 1906
By 1906, much of Coney Island had taken on a different character. The bathing, dancing, and dining atmosphere of just a decade earlier had been dissipated by intensive development of amusement parks, arcades, and associated tourist attractions. Dreamland, one of the more famous parts of Coney Island, appears on sheet 24. The introduction of rides is clearly evident on the three sheets with attractions bearing such descriptive names as chutes, coasters, carousels, canals, loop-the-loops, and air ships. Scenic railways depicting spectacular or exotic locales were also popular. Most of the beach had disappeared under the new development, and the boardwalk now defined much of the shoreline. Dance halls, however, were still quite numerous.
Wood was still the principal building material of this era, although there are a number of brick buildings and a single concrete-block structure. At the bottom of sheet 24 there is a detailed listing of the fire-fighting apparatus and water supply available in Dreamland. Such notes were valuable to the insurance industry at the time, and from a historical perspective they provide insight into the era's fire fighting technology. The description of equipment is the depiction of the location and size of water lines running through the property and the location of hydrants, hoses, and tanks.
Coney Island, 1930
A major fire destroyed Dreamland in 1911, and part of the site was turned into the public park now known as Seaside Park. The northern part of Dreamland, just south of Surf Avenue, was rebuilt as a scaled-down arcade, with two carousels, one or two minor rides, and a few pavilions dedicated to various types of shows. The area west of the old Dreamland had been largely rebuilt. The old loop-the-loop had been replaced with a large complex containing two roller coasters and a boat ride. To the west, several wooden structures had been replaced with brick buildings, and virtually all land vacant in 1906 was now filled with bathing houses and stores. A major cultural change is suggested by the presence of a "Motor Parkway" and an "Auto Speedway." One significant difference between 1906 and 1930 is the presence of a substantial beach between the boardwalk and the sea.
Sanborn Time Series: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Building styles and materials often reflect cultural and economic development. Early settlers in an area may have adapted local materials. Over time exotic materials may have been imported into an area by immigrants seeking to build structures that reminded them of home or by those who created buildings with functions new to an area. The fire insurance maps of Santa Fe, New Mexico, provide detailed insights into this process of cultural diffusion and adaptation.
In the following examples, one city block of Santa Fe has been reproduced from three different editions.
The annotations provided are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, they point out some changes that occurred over time as a way to illustrate the types of information that can be gleaned from a careful study of fire insurance maps.
This illustration is the section of a panoramic map of Santa Fe drawn in 1882 that shows the same block rendered by an artist. This is example of how fire insurance maps can be used in conjunction with other cartographic materials.