Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases at Central Library
The Sanborn Map Company of New York holds a unique place in American urban historical research. Their atlases of American cities were originally created to inform fire insurance companies of risks in urban areas but ended up tracing the subtle change from an agrarian society to a nation of cities. The hefty atlases produced by D.A. Sanborn from the 1880s to 1970 show changes from block to block like no other cartographic resource and open up our knowledge of what our cities looked like before this modern age.
The original sheets of the atlases changed with the times as clerks pasted strips of paper over sites that changed in any way and streets or neighborhoods transformed the landscape. In the case of our own Los Angeles, the Sanborn maps show us a booming city which grew from two volumes, 36 square miles and 43,000 people in 1888 to forty-two volumes, 466 square miles and roughly 3 million people by 1970.
As the Sanborn company informed the insurance companies about the quality of buildings they also left a permanent impression of the shapes of communities in certain time frames. In many ways, these maps trace the footprints of development in Los Angeles. The atlases are both practical and beautiful in their original format of color renderings showing building materials, structural qualities and special features that are coded by the hue. Adobe is evident alongside codes for apartments, family dwellings, fire hydrants, chimneys, car-houses and such. The importance of such detail is vital today for present day planners finding materials that might cause environmental problems in the here and now.
Urban planners, developers, conservationists, students and architects study these atlases to determine if an oil well, sewer outlet, slaughterhouse, refinery or waste dump may have occupied their site in a past time. Indeed, the city requires builders to check Sanborn atlases before they build on their sites. However, some folks just like to look and learn about the old neighborhoods. There is great aesthetic pleasure in scanning the old sheets and allowing the imagination to take over. Beverly Park and its pony ride are there, likewise the old zoo where kids fed the elephants and the Normal school standing where Central Library is today are all part of the Sanborn lore.
The original 1888 volume on Los Angeles shows the locations of the Pony Livery Stables, the Panorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Philadelphia brewery, the Home Ice company, the Los Angeles Electric Light Company and the Atlas Feed Mill. It may seem hard to imagine the Los Angeles of dusty roads and hoofbeats but here it is frozen in time on the Sanborn sheets. The city of the angels was small and diversified with cracker Companies, flour mills, wineries, stock brokerages and baseball fields all rubbing shoulders in the Sanborn's domain.
Unfamiliar streets criss-cross the metro area: for example Fort street, New High, Rock, Walters, Teed, Sainseven and others now faded from memory. Churches, hotels, orphan asylums, old Chinatown and even U.S.C. are identified on the original Sanborn as is Angelino Heights, the very first suburb.
Central Library owns the collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases in the Library of Congress on microfilm which extends up and down the entire state of California giving us views of everything from old gold camps to our home towns in the 1950s. Not all time frames are included in the film but in an optimal example of coverage in downtown Los Angeles, we can see the old burg in 1888, 1894, 1906, 1929, 1950, 1960, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1967 and 1970. Although Sanborn atlases do not identify owners of homes or businesses they do name most public buildings, show all structures on the lots and present streets in exact dimensions.
At Central library, patrons can view Sanborn atlases on microfilm or use the online Sanborn atlas resource or be referred to Sanborn's parent company EDR for reproductions. In the History Department, Sanborn Atlases, historic photographs, city directories and citations from the California Subject Index can help patrons unlock the secret treasures of Los Angeles neighborhoods and bring back to life a time gone by.
The Historic Resources Group Collection of Sanborn Atlases
The Historic Resources Group Collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance atlases is a hard copy collection of 60 volumes covering the city of Los Angeles and some local cities in the mid-1950’s. This gift from the Historic Resources Group was made to the Los Angeles Public Library in June of 2004 and gives the History department a complete set of specimens for the entire city.
How to Find the Correct Sanborn Reels for Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Public Library owns the Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases in the Library of Congress on Microfilm. The History Department has the entire state of California in this set which represents a time frame from 1888 to 1950. The 72 reels are cataloged under the number NR 912.794 S198 and are shelved in the microfilm drawers at the far end of the reading room. A guide to Sanborns is available at the Reference Desk which should be used to find which reel contains the atlases appropriate to the site desired.
There is now a second set of Sanborns available under the number NR 912.794 S198-1 covering Los Angeles city only and covering years from the fifties, sixties and a few up to 1970. This set does not cover outlying cities such as Santa Monica or Pasadena or City of Industry etc. These black, plastic boxes are shelved after the early Sanborns in the microfilm drawers at the far end of the reading room.
Sanborns in L.A. How to Find Them
There are 40 volumes covering Los Angeles proper so first the patron must determine the volume covering the requested site or area.
- Check the large Sanborn Master Address Index at the desk for the volume number and sheet number for the needed site. If you need an area or neighborhood or are unsure of the address you can use the Thomas Guide index to Sanborns at the desk for the correct volume.
- Check in the Sanborn guide at the desk under the tabbed pages "Los Angeles" for the appropriate reel containing the volume needed after you have found the volume in step one: for example volume 8 for 1950 would be on reel 29. There are also two copies ofthis guide on top of the microfishe cabinets behind the electronic island in the History reading room.
The Library of Congress set of Sanborns of Los Angeles cover four basic time periods.
- 1888 original covering a small portion of downtown.
- 1894 slightly expanded downtown area
- 1906 to 1930 as the area grew and the Sanborn coverage expanded. These volumes exist in their original form. The date of first issue is listed right after the volume number: for example vol. 7 1907. This time frame extends from 1907 to 1930 when the last volumes were completed. This set begins at the end of reel 20 and continues to reel 27.
- 1950. As changes were made in the covered areas the changes were reflected by pastings which were applied by Sanborn representatives. The final set of the Library of Congress are the corrected atlases as they looked in 1950. Most architects and urban planners need to look at this set which begins at reel 28 and continues to reel 34.
Disclaimer: Many areas of Los Angeles were not covered by Sanborn and regions of the city in the west San Fernando valley are almost totally ignored. If addresses are not found in the Sanborn Address index and are not found in the Thomas Guide index you will not find them in this library. In some rare cases atlases can be found at California State University at Northridge where the best hard-copy collection of the atlases can be found.
- Many outlying cities are covered by their own Sanborn atlases and are listed in the Sanborn Guide under Cities in L.A. County. Some San Fernando Valley cities are covered such as North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Reseda, etc. Street indexes precede the cities on the reels. The appropriate reels for any city can be found in the Sanborn guide under "Checklist of California cities." The city name on the microfilm and year of issue appears in an oval in the upper right-hand corner of the sheets.
- When in doubt call the map librarian 213-228-7414
Using Online Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases at Central Library
Los Angeles Public Library makes Sanborn Atlases for the state of California available on-line using the archives of the Library of Congress. The online resource does not have as much coverage as the microfilm reels available in the History department of Central Library. However, it does offer extensive coverage from the late nineteenth century up to 1950 in some cases. Sometimes as many as four separate versions of sites might be represented in the sets online remote access is available to patrons holding valid Los Angeles Public Library cards.
For the first time patrons may now use the street index to the 40 volume set of Sanborn Atlases for Los Angeles which is the Gaylord Scan at City Sanborn Street Index (PDF)
Or users who wish to search certain neighborhoods can use the Thomas guide graphically showing volume numbers of given areas. Sanborn Index (PDF)
- Select Browse Maps
- Select a State from scroll-down menu (Note: California is the only option)
- Select a City from scroll-down menu
- Select a Date from scroll-down menu
Dates listed do not include every year of range but only year of original publishing or year the atlas was corrected to in the range. i.e. 1906-Jan. 1950 would include years of original volumes ranging from 1906 (vol. 1-5, then 1907 (vol. 6-7) etc. The time frame listed as 1906-Jan. 1951 will show all 40 volumes with changes made up to 1950. 1906-1955 show many volumes republished in 1955 and some a volumes done in 1955 that cover areas skipped in the original atlases.
Volume Numbers for Los Angeles Neighborhoods: A Rough Guide
In using the on-line Sanborn collection there is no available street index to determine locations in the forty-two volumes covering city limits. The following list is a loose checklist of Los Angeles neighborhoods and the volumes covering those locations.
- Downtown: 1st street down to Washington Blvd. / Hoover to Broadway — Volume 1
- Downtown: Main street to LA River / 1st street to Washington Blvd. — Volume 2
- Downtown: 1st street to Sunset/ LA River to Rampart — Volume 3
- Atwater — Volume 40
- Bel Air — Volume 24
- Beverly Hills — Volume 21
- Boyle Heights — Volumes 13 & 14
- Brentwood — Volume 24
- Century City — Volume 24
- Chinatown — Volume 3
- Civic Center — Volume 3
- Country Club Park — Volume 8
- Cudahy — Volume 31
- Eagle Rock — Volumes 31 & 39
- East L.A. — Volume 14
- Echo Park — Volumes 3 & 11
- Exposition Park — Volume 5
- Garment District — Volume 2
- Glassell Park — Volume 39
- Hancock Park — Volume 22
- Highland Park — Volume 12
- Hollywood — Volume 10
- Hollywood Hills — some in Volume 10a
- Huntington Park — Volume 30
- Hyde Park — Volume 25
- Koreatown — Volume 7
- Leimert Park — Volume 36
- Little Tokyo — Volume 3
- Montecito Heights — Volume 13
- Mt. Washington — Volume 12
- Park La Brea — Volume 22
- Produce District — Volume 2
- Rancho Park — Volume 24
- San Pedro — Volume 19
- Silverlake — Volume 11
- South Gate — Volume 29
- UCLA — Volume 24
- USC — Volume 5
- Venice — end of Volume 40
- Vernon — Volumes 15 & 32
- View Park — Volume 36
- Walnut Park — Volume 30
- Watts — Volume 28
- West Hollywood — Volumes 20 & 10
- Westlake — Volume 1
- Westwood — Volume 24
- Windsor Hills — Volume 36