The Typography of
Sanborn New York City Maps

Title pages from maps issued between 1885 and 1917

Sanborn Fire insurance map New York Staten Island 1885

NEW YORK Staten Island. Atlas 159, 1885

Sanborn Fire insurance map New York Brooklyn 1888

BROOKLYN New York. Atlas 80. Vol. 6, 1888
Variations of this design appeared between 1886 and 1988.

Sanborn Fire insurance map New York Brooklyn Suburbs 1895 detail

NEW YORK Brooklyn Suburbs. Atlas 62. Vol. B, 1895
At least two editions with slightly different designs and typography appeared in 1893 and 1895.

Sanborn Fire insurance map Insurance maps of the city of NEW YORK 1896 typography

Insurance maps of the city of NEW YORK 1896
Variations of this design appeared between 1894 and 1902.

Sanborn Fire insurance map Borough of Richmond 1898 typography

Insurance maps of the Borough of Richmond. City of New York. Atlas 160, 1898

Sanborn Fire insurance map Borough of Queens 1903 typography

Borough of Queens. City of New York. Atlas 141. Vol. 5, 1903
At least three editions with slightly different designs and typography appeared between 1901 and 1903.

Sanborn Fire insurance map New York Manhattan 1905

NEW YORK Manhattan 1905
The same design was used for the maps of The Bronx.

Sanborn Fire insurance map New York Brooklyn Suburbs 1895 detail

Borough of Queens. City of New York. Atlas 142a, Vol. 6, 1911
Two slightly different designs appeared between 1911 and 1915.

Sanborn Fire insurance map Staten Island

Borough of Richmond. Staten Island Atlas 162. Vol. 1, 1917

This article is the first part of a series of articles about Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. You’ll find the second one here: Sanborn map company logo and lettering.

In february BibliOdyssey posted an article about Sanborn fire insurance typography. A fantastic collection of rich typography from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their selection seemed quite random though. Finding more images wasn’t easy. I found most of them in the most search engine unfriendly places of the internet: libraries and universities.

The New York public Library has an online collection of Atlases of New York city, including a section containing Insurance maps of New York. 4,961 images from maps of the five boroughs of New York City: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.

The images displayed above are all the title pages from the Insurance maps of New York I could find. Fascinating to see how complex the designs are, considering they were all made without a computer. I’m not an expert, but I think most of the lettering is unique; no existing typefaces were used. Which makes it even more impressive.

A couple of weeks ago Peter Bil’ak wrote an article called “We don’t need new fonts…”


In spite of all the attention to type and the unprecedented conditions for type designers, the vast majority of new fonts desperately lack originality. Just as in the music industry, where cover versions and remixes are often more popular than new music, font designers seemingly prefer to exploit successful models from the past rather than strive for new solutions.

If you look closely at the images above you’ll find all kinds of letterforms that are rarely (or never) seen in today’s design. They’re quite original too. Maybe it’s time for old fonts?

EDIT: I’ve started adding large images to two Gimmebar collections:
Sanborn Map Company typography and lettering + Sanborn Map Company details.

The Sanborn Map Company

Sanborn Map Company began creating fire insurance maps in 1867. They were created to assist insurance agencies in assessing the fire risk of properties. Detailed maps, showing building use, sidewalk and street widths, layout and names, property boundaries, distance between buildings, house and block numbers, location of water mains, hydrants, piping, wells, cisterns, and fuel storage tanks. Maps were often updated by pasting new drawings directly over the original ones.

Other sources: high quality maps

I’ll update this list as soon as I find more websites with high quality scans. Most websites are from libraries and universities.

  1. Brad Shaw says:

    You may already be aware of them, but there is one foundry called Letterhead Fonts producing some fonts that are in some cases similar to those seen here.

  2. Thanks for digging these images up! NYPL has an astounding collection of imagery. I highly recommend searching for these on the NYPL site and using the zoom viewer–you can then appreciate the extraordinary artistry and detail. This kind of hand-lettering is nearly a lost art. (Ever wondered what French curves were used for?)

  3. anna says:

    These are really nicely done! Theres a balance between design that makes sense and design for the sake of it and this website get its right

  4. Gemma says:

    Those maps are gorgeous! They even match the decor of your website. I like the monochrome style too. It fits.