Fire-insurance maps are a very useful tool for local historians, demographers, city planners, genealogists, and anyone studying the history of an urban area. These fire-insurance maps were developed by the Sanborn Company in the latter part of the 19th century for the purpose of showing fire hazards for each building in a town. In addition to Sanborn, two other makers of fire insurance maps are represented in this microfiche collection: the Bennett Company and the Iowa Insurance Bureau. These commercial agencies did extremely detailed work on the mapping and updating of the buildings in towns of all sizes, making it possible for researchers to look back at changes in a building, a street block, or a neighborhood over a number of years.
Some types of information that can be found on these maps include: building construction details (building materials, number of stories, elevators and stairs, date of construction); building use details (building name, commercial or residential, type of business located on the premises); location details (current address, past addresses, alleyways and prominent natural features); and land use details (parks, railroad tracks, underground pipes, street widths, land elevations).
UI Affiliates: Persons affiliated with the University of Iowa have access to ProQuest’s Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970 (UI access only) covering the entire nation.
State Library of Iowa affiliates: The State Library of Iowa makes Iowa Sanborn maps available online for anyone with a State Library of Iowa card.
Fire insurance maps for more than 1000 Iowa cities are available to the public on microfiche in the Map Collection at the University of Iowa Main Library. The microfiche set, compiled in the early 1980s, contains reproductions of Iowa fire insurance maps held at the Library of Congress, the University of Iowa, and the State Historical Society offices in both Des Moines and Iowa City. Time periods covered for the available cities range mainly from the 1870s to the 1960s. The Map Collection also owns a 1970 map on microfiche for Iowa City.
Fiche may be removed from the room to make paper and digital copies within the library. Patrons may also use the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) services of their local library to obtain paper copies of the fiche. Click here for additional information on ILL.
The Fire Insurance Maps Database is a searchable database of the microfiche holdings for Iowa cities and towns—no images are included in the database.
In addition, the library at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City has purchased, from University Publications of America, six microfilm reels containing updated maps for many (larger) Iowa towns from the 1940s to the 1970s. This film set includes fire insurance maps that are not held in the Map Collection.
For more information on the Iowa filming project, and more information on each map (e.g., source library for fiche copy, preparer of map), see Fire insurance maps of Iowa cities and towns: a list of holdings by Peter H. Curtis (Iowa City, Iowa: Iowa State Historical Dept., Office of the State Historical Society, 1983.) Both preface and map listings from the book are online.
Sanborn maps of Iowa dating from the 1870s through the 1930s are available on paper. Please contact Map Collection staff for assistance.
Fire Insurance Maps Outside of Iowa
A listing of libraries holding specific Sanborn and other insurance maps for Iowa and other states, including information regarding maps that have been digitized, is available on UC Berkeley Earth Sciences & Map Library’s site. Some of the linked sites include images of the Sanborn maps.
Updated: Jan. 6, 2014 by M. Gamm • L.Carpenter, Reference and Library Instruction including information and reference services, government documents, and maps.