Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2014 Issue

I am wrong right now but I will be right some day

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Several months ago I ran across an item briefly described as a Sanborn fire atlas.  I may have heard of them but didn’t understand what they are.  They are interesting highly detailed maps of towns and cities prepared for use by local officials and the fire insurance industry for rating risk and by extension establishing insurance premiums.  More recently they have become primary source research material.  In the United States they date from the 1860s but came into wide use in the 1880s.  According to many dealers with whom I spoke about them they are immediately fascinating and very difficult to sell.  The consensus opinion is that they are “too” many things, too recent, too obscure, and too large.  The largest of these atlases require two hefty men to place them on a library table and turn their pages – 21.5" by 26.5" on heavy stock.  Although they are very local their page counts sometimes run into the hundreds.  A mammoth set of San Francisco maps, covering the period 1910 to 1970, shows the footprint of every building in the city in spellbinding detail over roughly 60 years – 1913 to about 1970.  This set comprises 11 volumes and more than 1,500 maps and is currently listed by a dealer.  This set weighs perhaps 300 pounds and is, it seems, is too much of a good thing for many collectors.

But price aside I don’t see the problem.   These maps are of incalculable interest and importance and, it turns out, smart people have been acquiring them for years although it’s all been very quiet.  The largest buyer has been the Library of Congress and they have a massive number of these maps, some 750,000 of them.  Virtually all are unspeakably rare and shunned by the trade.  As a consequence they appear to be unloved but that will change.  They are simply too precious and precise to ignore and it turns out the perfect companion to many kinds of ephemera and map collecting.

Let’s begin by looking at what they are.

The Sanborn Company and later, for some decades the Bromley Company, created, for insurance purposes, meticulously detailed maps of American towns and cities to record the size and location of houses and commercial buildings on their lots as shown in local deeds and records.  These maps were then created in small numbers and, it turns out, updated infrequently.  Towns in the Hudson Valley of New York, with which I have some knowledge, may have had half a dozen versions created over fifty years.  In the intervening years the Sanborn and Bromley Companies would send representatives to the clients using these maps to make hand entries and adjustments to reflect changes in the city rolls.  To be readable and understandable these maps were created in the scale of 1-inch equals 50 feet.  For local precision this was ideal. 

To understand this scale a world map portraying the 25,000 mile circumference of the earth would be 220,000 feet wide.  This is intense local mapping intended to both place buildings on their lots and precisely identify the shape, however irregular, of the building.  It’s very impressive record keeping.  It is also a powerful hook for anyone, be they institutions, interested parties or collectors to link documents, photographs, and artwork to specific addresses and specific dates, in effect creating local and personal history into which the boundless ephemera that is flowing onto eBay and into the exhibition booths of dealers at shows can be contextualized and understood in the broad sweep of history.  It is in effect magic.

Large-scale scanners can convert these maps into digitized images but these maps, while very accurate, because of their scale should be fitted together to make larger maps of areas and sections.  To do this each map will need to be fitted into the earth’s true coordinates and the dimensions of each map then microscopically adjusted to make these images come together as random pieces of a larger puzzle.  It’s doable.

Continuing revisions to these old maps could then be captured as layers.

Within these layers a family’s home ownership and their years of residence could be added.  Family pictures could be linked as well.  Connections to local schools and employers noted.  The color of residents could be adduced and the shifting racial boundaries seen adjusting almost in real time by shifting the time line forward or back.

It has been inevitable that there will be an ambitious project to map history.  These insurance maps give us a way to incorporate the human history of America into a comprehensible story, one in which almost all Americans will find a place in it for them and theirs.

History is extraordinarily inaccurate, often the privilege of the winners to write and impose their version on those boxing on the undercards.  This project will rewrite the history of America and in so doing become an extraordinary teaching tool that brings libraries, historical societies, communities and educational institutions together in common cause to contextualize the lives and experiences of millions of Americans in the story.  

These maps also have the potential to be electronically turned on their sides to show images of these places and the people who lived, played, worked, worshiped and died there - to permit personal stories to emerge - from the underlying facts - and bring such places and eras to life again, to see what granddad saw, the parades that marched by and the movies playing at the Arcade.

As for the impact on the ephemera field this will be an extraordinary moment.  The gathering and collecting of old and random information, probably some billion pieces of it, will begin to fit into a clear and understandable structure for which these maps are simply the first step.  There will be fresh reasons to save ephemera, reasons to share it, and robust markets in time to redistribute it.

It would be remarkable, truly remarkable and it should happen.  People deserve it and frankly dealers need it.

As to who may take this on certainly Google is logical.  Yahoo too could handle it.  Ancestry.com would gain immeasurably and eBay could make it a major business.  But it may also simply rise of its will, the thirst for connection is never fully quenched.

 

So it will happen, perhaps not now or even soon, but certainly, absolutely certainly some day.

 

The maps that illustrate this article are from a Kingston-Rondout Sanborn Atlas created in 1887.  Each map is actually 21.5" x 26.5".  Click on any map to enlarge it.

 


Posted On: 2014-09-01 04:21
User Name: psyxprt@aol.com

The layering idea is fascinating.


Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.

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