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A Keeper’s Resource: Sanborn Maps

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September 8, 2020 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

While books like Arkham Unveiled are great Keeper resources, there are always time when you might need to expand upon some spot in Miskatonic Country – a street, a cross-roads, a neighborhood – in a little more detail than the original books (and certain more than old H.P. Lovecraft himself) offered up. In those times, it is nice to have a real-world reference to spur the imagination and guide your creations.

In that vein, I thought I would share a great resource for such creations, one that have used in the past and plan to use in the future – Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. As noted in that Wikipedia entry I just linked to:

[They] were originally created to allow fire insurance companies to assess their total liability in urbanized areas of the United States. Since they contain detailed information about properties and individual buildings in approximately 12,000 U.S. cities and towns, Sanborn maps are invaluable for documenting changes in the built environment of American cities over many decades.

An increasing number of these valuable documents are available from the Library of Congress online and I thought I’d post a link to several cities that either featured notably in some of Lovecraft’s stories or served as inspiration for his fictional towns. A little poking around will find nearly every town of any size in New England (and if you need a smaller town, those are available too, either on the their own or smaller parts of larger towns), so please share any interesting finds in the comments section.

A detail images from Boston’s North End, featuring the Copps’ Hill Burying Ground; note that they don’t include any detail on the cemetery and its structures but notes the sort of use of the industrial tanks nearby.

A few caveats – these maps are incredibly detailed, to the point of noting the heights of every building, includes every shed, details every sort of land use – but they are extremely uninterested in other things, like the name of small businesses, the dynamics of residences and populations, interior layout, vegetation or recreation. The other issue is that most of the these maps predate the “classic” era of the 1920s and 30s, though you can often find one from the 1910s; things change but not so much that your players will greatly care. Other sources are needed to really recreate a past place, but these maps are a great foundation to build upon.


Boston

Just part of Boston

Boston, as one might imagine, is spread over several volumes, not all of which are yet available online. I’ve included a link to the 1914 map set here; there is a 1917 set but it does not include most of the heart of downtown Boston.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3764bm.g03693190901/?sp=1

Marblehead

Marblehead

Marblehead, which was largely the inspiration for Lovecraft’s Kingsport, has several sets of maps dating back to the 1880s. The most recent is 1915, which predates HPL’s influential first visit by just 7 years.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3764mm.g037771915/?st=gallery

Newburyport

Newburyport

Man, this would have been helpful when I was writing my article about Newburyport for issue 2 of the Gazette. I was eventually able to track down much of what I needed via digging in various MACRIS entries and other sources, but this set of maps would have been very delightful.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3764nm.g038041914/?sp=1

Providence

A portion of College Hill; you can’t tell but the Fleur-de-Lys building is on this map.

Like Boston, Providence is spread across several books; this link is to the eastern portion of the city. The maps are from 1920-1.

https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn08099_008/

Salem

Salem

Oddly enough, fire insurance became extremely important for Salem in 1914, which a large section of the city was destroyed in a catastrophic fire.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3764sm.g038361906/?st=gallery

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