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>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.

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