Who Were Those Sanborn Men?

In case you didn’t catch it, Thomas Rosell noted at the end of yesterday’s news roundup that the Library of Congress is gradually publishing its digitized collection of the full-color Sanborn Insurance Maps. Currently, Mississippi only has three sets: Pascagoula for 1904 and 1918 and Pontotoc for 1898. But that’s more than just a few months ago, so just wait and we’ll get the whole collection eventually.

Pascagoula Sanborn map (1904), Page 1. Notice the wealth of information on just this page and then multiply that by the hundreds of thousands of Sanborn map pages created by nameless mapmakers from the 1880s through the 1960s.

I’ve been looking at Sanborn maps for over 20 years in awe of all the information they provide and how beautiful they are. But many aspects of how they were created still remain a mystery, one that no scholar has stepped forward yet to answer with the book-length study that the company’s century of work documenting American towns and cities deserves. How did these maps get created? Did men walk the streets sketching and measuring where buildings were? If not, how did they get their information? How were towns selected and at what intervals? How many men were required to make a map the size of, say Pascagoula in 1904, which has 8 sheets? Who bought the Sanborn maps and how? Was I a Sanborn man in a previous life?

Clarion-Ledger April 12, 1890, p.4

Recently, while clicking around on my newest digital addiction, newspapers.com, I wondered, “Did the newspapers ever take notice of the Sanborn men?” Then I answered myself, “Newspapers of yore took note when Mrs. Jones had tea with Mrs. Smith, of course they must have noted when a Sanborn man was walking around town!” So I went into newspapers.com and a few of the other newspaper sites that frustratingly have slightly different newspapers, and searched for Mississippi newspapers that included the term “Sanborn map.” Here are a few of my findings.

The earliest reference I found to the Sanborn map men in Mississippi is in April 1890, when Wm. H. Martin came to Jackson to “make a map of the city.” Was he by himself or was he leading an unnamed team of people? Unknown. How long was he working? Unknown.

Daily Herald, February 25, 1904, p. 6.

In February 1904, the Daily Herald remarked that A.E. Bruner, surveyor, “has been in Biloxi several days” and “expects to be here a week longer before he completes the work.”

The resulting map contains 10 sheets, which seems like quick work to me for one man in about two weeks. We also get a clue that Mr. Bruner was a surveyor–I had also wondered what kind of skills the Sanborn map was looking for in its mapmakers. Good information, but I still don’t know how Mr. Bruner was accomplishing his task.

Twenty years later, a Clarion-Ledger article described a “large crew of workers” from the Sanborn company’s Atlanta office (which I didn’t realize it had) would be spreading over the state to update their Mississippi maps.

Clarion-Ledger, September 20, 1924, p.8.

Whether those workers would be working together and knocking out each town and moving on to the next or would be fanning out separately is not clear from this article, but may have been the latter based on this next article. Surveyor C.F. Doane, Jr., working two days after Christmas in December 1924, expected to take “several weeks” in an update that was being done five years after the last mapping expedition in July 1919 because of the “remarkable growth of Tupelo” in that period. The 1924 set for Tupelo came in at 12 sheets.

Clarion-Ledger, December 27, 1924, p.3

The Daily Herald in 1912 tells us that surveyor Wald. E. Scherle (what is “Wald.” an abbreviation for?) has been working for “the past few weeks” and expects to finish tomorrow and head on to Lumberton (where I see he knocked out a 5-sheet set). Gulfport’s 1912 Sanborn map set consists of 28 sheets, so way to go Wald. for working long hours walking the streets of Gulfport!

Daily Herald, October 21, 1912, p.5

All of these articles above consistently name only one person in each town, which raises questions in my head about how one man measures anything as large as a building efficiently? Surely he had to have someone holding the other end of the line? Thank you, Yazoo Herald of November 19, 1926 for taking notice of not one but TWO Sanborn men, George E. Cook of Key West, FL, and Winslow Hollingsworth of Atlanta. Not only that, the Herald decribes in loving detail how the two men did their work, “taking diagrams of all buildings. . . . no small job for the smallest house must be given the same inspection as the largest building.”

Were all the other articles simply talking to the man in charge and ignoring that he had a helper or two, or was Yazoo City an outlier in having two Sanborn men? I don’t know, but either way, this is the most complete article I’ve found to date about the actual logistics of Sanborn mapping looked like in each town. The resulting map set is date January 1927 and includes 19 sheets, so apparently Cook and Hollingsworth took over a month to complete their work.

Yazoo Herald, November 19, 1926, p. 1.

The 1912 Daily Herald article refers to insurance companies that subscribed to the Sanborn map collection and received the regular updates. (As an aside, I wonder how many African American insurance companies and mutual aid societies subscribed? I would think the larger companies would have, but it’s an interesting question whose answer might explain why certain black neighborhoods were covered in the maps and others weren’t.) The newspapers also remind us that insurance companies weren’t the only ones interested in the maps–local governments also subscribed. A 1928 Hinds Gazette list of recent expenditures by the Hinds County Board of Supervisors includes a $29.25 payout for “Sanborn Map Co., maps,” and in October 1928, the Yazoo City Board of Aldermen allowed a $47.37 payment for “Sanborn Map Co., map,” quite probably the same set those two splendid young men produced from November 192-January 1927.

You may think you now know all about Sanborn men in Mississippi, but tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to Mississippi’s very own Sanborn man, who became a leader in the state’s insurance industry in the 20th century. Stay tuned!

Categories: Architectural Research, Biloxi, Gulfport, Historic Preservation, Jackson, Tupelo, Yazoo City


15 replies

  1. This was great–your usual information combined with a well-placed couple of digs. :) Looking forward to tomorrow’s post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! It is amazing the amount of accuracy they achieved and the access these surveyors were allowed. I can’t wait to learn who this Mississippi Sanborn person was!


  3. Waldemar E Scherle was a geologist and civil engineer from Texas.


  4. George E Cook and his brother Joseph V Cook were both surveyors for #SanbornMap co.


  5. William H Martin was an insurance surveyor for #SanbornMap (and others), who worked out of Cincinnati.


  6. A. E. Bruner was an “insurance surveyor.” Fire insurance map publishers looked for the skills of civil engineers, not those of land surveyors.


  7. #SanbornMap surveyors usually worked alone in smaller towns. No need for “someone holding the other end of the line.” Distances were paced off with 30-inch strides.


  8. https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.jsPatrons of the Mississippi Library Commission can view & save Mississippi maps online (at home) in PDF format. When you get your Library Commission card, inquire about the databases available. The maps are not in color as the LOC maps, but black & white.


  9. Several Sanborn surveyors were nominally assigned to the Atlanta office during this period. Some actually lived in Atlanta, others in nearby states. For the push through Mississippi additional men were temporary additions. C F Doane usually worked out of Sanborn’s Providence, Rhode Island office, 49 Weybosset St. room 34.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is great information! Do you have access to company records, or are you finding this through census and city directory research? Is “mapsonfire” your website?


      • MapsOnFire.com is mine, but empty now. Have 50,000 copyright entries/reentries, census records, city directories, newspaper reports, surveyors’ manuals, users’ manuals, company brochures. Have been studying fire insurance mapmakers for fifteen years. Sanborn, Rascher, Hexamer, Dakin, Bennett, Teague, inspection bureaus, actuarial cos., Goad, Factory Mutual, many others.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m sorry I never discovered your website, but I can’t wait to see your book, I hope (?)


  10. I have used the Sanborn maps for years on-line through the MS Library Commission (not colorized) and find them a valuable research tool.


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