Mapping Cities and Towns in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: A Look at Plat, Sanborn, and Panoramic Mapping Activities in Michigan

By Patton, David K.; Lobben, Amy K. et al. | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Mapping Cities and Towns in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: A Look at Plat, Sanborn, and Panoramic Mapping Activities in Michigan


Patton, David K., Lobben, Amy K., Pape, Bruce M. C., Michigan Historical Review


As nonindigenous settlement of Michigan expanded during the nineteenth century, the mapping needs of the area changed significantly. Land speculation, farming, logging, and construction of villages and towns began to dominate the area's geography, and the need for large-scale maps became critical. The common bond among all of these activities was local landownership and land use. These types of ventures could not and cannot be managed with small-scale maps, i.e., those less than 1:100,000 or 1 inch equals 1.58 miles. In fact, many of these activities could not be effectively managed with the modern 1:24,000 (1 inch equals 2,000 feet) United States Geologic Survey topographic maps. To adequately document parcel-level features generally requires a scale greater than 1:5,000. Although it is simple enough to declare that maps are needed at 1:4,800 (1 inch equals 400 feet), the cost and effort involved in creating large-scale maps are enormous. Even today, with the ever-expanding use of the Global Positioning System and Geographic Information Systems, up-to-date parcel maps remain a significant challenge for local mapping agencies.

Three forms of cartographic products that specifically met the need for large-scale representation of cities and towns starting in the nineteenth century were plat maps, fire-insurance maps, and panoramic views. Although these map types were similar in scale and were all often used to portray cities and towns, each was developed for quite different and specific reasons. Plat maps represented (as they still do today) the official government record for monitoring landownership and boundary locations. While the actual scale of plat maps varies, they are generally created on a scale larger than 1:2,000. Fire-insurance maps evolved to provide insurance companies with accurate infrastructure inventories for the purpose of evaluating fire risk in urban areas. These maps are also very large-scale and include building footprints, building materials, and the type of activity carried on in each structure. (1) Finally, panoramic maps or views were created as artistic renderings for civic self-promotion. They generally depicted towns and dries at a slightly smaller scale than fire-insurance maps, but they also showed individual buildings. Contrary to plats and fire-insurance maps, panoramic views were drawn from an oblique angle and were far more artistic.

By the 1930s, changes in the insurance business precipitated a decline in the need for fire-insurance maps and changes in popular taste brought the era of panoramic views to an end. Despite their demise as commercially viable products, extant maps and views (along with plats) are enormously significant documents for students of urban places of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because of the large scale employed in creating these maps and the corresponding detail they provide, these products have always been significant, but prior to the Internet they were fairly difficult to obtain. Large collections of original fire-insurance maps are typically stored in one or two libraries within a given state, and even then the collections are generally limited to places within that state. (2) Large collections of panoramic views are even more difficult to locate.

Today the Sanborn Map Company, in cooperation with the Proquest Information and Learning Company, has made all of its fire-insurance maps available on the world wide web. (3) The company's online catalog includes more than twelve thousand cities, many mapped half a dozen times. Likewise, the Library of Congress (LC) has made its entire collection of panoramic views available on the web. (4) The Library of Congress provides free access to its collection of panoramic views, and they can be downloaded without cost. Although the LC collection is not exhaustive, it is substantial. Even plat maps can be found on the web. The State of Michigan has scanned more than sixty-six thousand plats and made them available on the Internet for free viewing. …

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