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Clone of Research Guide: New York City Maps

    NYPL’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division is home to almost a half million maps and approximately 28,000 atlases.  Our collection of New York City maps spans a large swath of time, tracking the growth of the city from its early days as a small North Atlantic Dutch colony to its modern incarnation as one of the capitals of the globalized world. Wading through NYPL’s large NYC map collection and locating the maps or atlases that will satisfy your curiosity or support your research may at first seem like a difficult task. The purpose of this research guide is to familiarize readers with the different types of maps most often used to depict urban areas – street maps, fire insurance maps and thematic maps.   

     Most readers are familiar with the most common map type – the street map. Maps that focus on the streets, avenues, expressways, etc. are by far the most numerous map type in our collection. These maps were designed to help the user locate institutions, public buildings, places of worship, large commercial and residential buildings. In addition to depicting the location of these spaces (as well as their relationship to one another) many street maps also include building address ranges, political boundaries (e.g. ward and election boundaries) and, most importantly, street names.

   The Map Division has NYC street maps from the colonial period to the present that are stored by borough and publication date. Many of our antiquarian maps do not appear in NYPL’s online catalog, consult the Map Division dictionary catalog in room 117 or seek the assistance of a map librarian. We also have a large selection of reference books relating to the history of NYC maps, historic street indexes as well as city guides. Three of our favorites include:

Mapping New York Robert by Neuwirth and Seth Robbins

Manhattan in Maps, 1527-1995  by Paul E. Cohen and Robert T. Augustyn

Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names by Sana Feirstein


    NYC street maps are usually fairly large in scale and may depict the entire city, a borough and or a single neighborhood. Their focus on the city’s main transportation arties – the streets – and major places of interest necessitate such a large scale, leaving little room for more detailed information about the homes, offices, churches, etc. which make up a city.  For this information researchers must turn to another popular urban map type  – the fire insurance map. Fire insurance maps, more commonly known as “Sanborn maps” or simply “Sanborns,” are sheet maps or atlas maps that were designed to describe the built environment of a city.  Unlike street maps the makers of fire insurance maps go to great lengths to describe the buildings, the land and transportation infrastructure that existed above, under and between a city’s streets. 

    The NYC fire insurance maps in our collection were made by a variety of map companies which were staffed by dozens of surveyors, draftsman and lithographers. Most of these companies were based here in NYC or in Philadelphia and published hundreds of map plates starting in the late 19th century. Some of the more prodigious and better known companies represented in NYPL’s fire insurance map collection include E. Robinson and Co., Perris & Brown Map Co, G.W. Bromley and Co. and the E. Belcher Hyde Map Co. However, over time most of these companies would be absorbed by the Sanborn Map Co. which is the origin of the “Sanborn” synecdoche. Today the Sanborn Map Company trademark is owned by Environmental Data Resources Inc. which publishes new fire insurance map atlases of New York City’s five boroughs every few years. 

    Although NYPL’s 19th and 20th century collection of NYC fire insurance maps were made by a variety of companies they all attempt to describe the city’s built environment as it was at the time of the atlas’ printing. The map makers used various colors, symbols, script fonts and notations to depict construction material, fenestration, building height, lot & block dimensions, location of easements, chimneys, skylights, and many more architectural details. Some fire insurance maps include detailed information of city infrastructure such as the location of subway stations & rail road tracks, fire hydrants, sidewalk width, public parks, public institutions, places of worship, schools & colleges, industry and commercial buildings. Surprisingly, contemporary Sanborn maps still depict the old farm line boundaries and colonial roads that predate NYC’s current street grid system. 

    Map Division staff can locate the fire insurance map plate(s) depicting your building quickly if you know the block & lot number assigned to your building. A small percentage of our NYC fire insurance atlases have been digitized and can be viewed here. The library also has a subscription to the Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970 database which includes fire insurance maps of cites, towns & villages in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  For more information on how to accurately read Sanborn maps or to gain a better understaing of the history of this valuable historical research tool consult the following reference books: 

Description and Utilization of the Sanborn Map by Sanborn Map Co.

Fire Insurance Maps: Their History and Application by Diane L. Oswald


  NYPL’s extensive collection of NYC fire insurance maps and street maps can help map researchers document the city’s built environment from the mid 17th century to the present. However, to gain a better understanding of the city’s changing population demographics, natural landscape and or land use, readers must consult a third map type - the thematic map. Wikipedia defines a thematic map as a “type of map or chart especially designed to show a particular theme connected with a specific geographic area. These maps can portray physical, social, political, cultural, economic, sociological, agricultural, or any other aspects of a city…” As the definition suggests the Map Division’s collection of NYC thematic maps covers a broad variety of themes and subject areas.  A simple way to determine the range of themes is by consulting the New York City subject headings in the Dictionary Catalog of the Map Division. Some of the more useful subject headings include: City Planning Department; Education Board; Parks Department and Topographical Bureau. 

    The following NYC demographic titles are also worth checking-out:  

New York City in the 1980’s: a social, economic, and political atlas by John H. Mollenkopf 

Plan for NYC 1969: A Proposal by City Planning Commission 

Negro and Puerto Rican Populations of  New York City in the Twentieth Century by Nathan Kantrowitz 

    As always, if you are unable to locate a thematic map, street map or fire insurance map in the dictionary catalog that supports your research consult a map librarian at the reference desk or send an email to