Using Maps for Genealogy Research, Part 2: Fire Insurance Maps - Exploring Space and Time

By Philip Sutton, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
December 24, 2018
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Genealogists seek records that describe names, places, and dates. Maps describe places and their names at a given point in time and, sometimes, even record the names of people. Unsurprisingly, then, maps are very useful tools for genealogists.
The New York Public Library Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division is home to 433,000 sheet maps, and 20,000 books and atlases published between the 16th and 21st centuries. The collections range in scale from global to local, and support the learning and research needs of a wide variety of users. This post, Fire Insurance Maps, is the second of a five-part series that describes some of the ways maps can be used for genealogical research. 

  1. Finding records
  2. Fire insurance maps: exploring place and time
  3. Place of origin and immigration stories
  4. Topographical maps, and county maps and atlases
  5. Gazetteers and finding maps at The New York Public Library

Here, we look at how fire insurance maps can be used together with other sources, like city directories, censuses, newspapers, and photographs, to create family histories with color and context, as we explore space and time.

Fire Insurance Maps

Fire insurance maps were born of necessity. A devastating fire in New York City in December 1835, not helped by another in July 1845, resulted in the failure of a number of local underwriters, leading to the formation of regional fire insurance companies. These companies insured a much larger number of properties, so could not always send an agent to inspect a building to assess its risk of catching fire; thus the cost of underwriting its potential loss.
In 1850, George T. Hope, the Secretary of The Jefferson Insurance Company, produced a detailed map of the properties that his company insured in New York City. Hope decided then to create a fire insurance map of the whole city. He set up a committee of fire insurance professionals to decide on standards, colors, scale, symbols, and so forth, that remained in use for over 100 years. The maps were drawn and published by English engineer William Perris as a series of atlases, Maps of the City of New York Surveyed Under the Directions of Insurance Companies of Said City (1852-1855).

Burning of the Merchants Exchange, New York City. The great fire of December, 1835. Digital Collections, Image ID: 54640

Perris’s atlases were the first to describe New York City’s built environment in detail. The maps identify the names of streets and avenues, and the names and numbers of buildings; building use, including houses of worship, schools, hospitals, and government buildings; materials used in building construction, identified by color coding: pink for brick or stone residences, green for specially hazardous, yellow for frame buildings; and cultural features, like theaters and parks. The maps include information that suggests the risk of the building catching fire, described using a system of dots, designed to help the insurance company assess a fire insurance premium for a building.

The atlas key, below, from Volume 4 of Perris’s Maps of the city of New York describes the fire risk of "specially hazardous" businesses: bakers and comb makers are assessed at a lower premium, brimstone and firework manufacturers are in the highest risk bracket. Again, this information might tell us something about our ancestors’ businesses. And why were the premises of comb makers considered hazardous?

Volume 4: map key. Maps of the city of New York, surveyed under directions of insurance companies of said city / William Perris, 1853

Fire insurance maps were produced all over the nation. Companies like the Sanborn Map Company and G.W. Bromley & Co. refined the maps over the course of the next 100 or so years, adding more details including identifying a building’s Borough Block and Lot number, building dimensions, number of floors, and location of architectural features, like skylights and elevators, vents, and partition walls. Fire insurance maps came to identify transit routes including subways, streetcar lines, and railroads; the location of fire hydrants; the former property boundaries of farms and estates; and old street names.

By the 1960s, modern fire insurance maps were used as a resource less by insurance companies, and more by the real estate industry, as well as researchers interested in the modern and historical built environment. Like old city directories, censuses, and ship manifests, historical fire insurance maps no longer serve their original purpose, but have taken on new life as invaluable data sources for historians and genealogists.

Plates 41 and 24, Maps of the city of New York / surveyed under directions of insurance companies of said city / William Perris 1853

Exploring Space and Time

As we have already seen, researchers can use fire insurance maps to find historical street and building numbers, and to find clues to the location of religious and civil records in churches, and government offices. Maps can also be used to explore narratives, and illustrate family histories.

The accompanying clipping from Perris’ Map of the City of New York 1852-1854 describes an area bordered by Stanton to the North, Delancy to the South, Eldridge to the East, and Bowery to the West. We see an area constructed of a mix of brick and frame buildings, many with gardens or yards, and some lumber and coal yards, but not much in the way of businesses or public buildings, save a Baptist Church and school.
This neighborhood appears mostly residential. Or does it describe a time when people were working where they lived? If we cross reference addresses in the map with entries in Doggett’s New York Street Directory for 1851, we can get a sense of who lived in the area, and what they did for a living.

Doggett's New York City street directory for 1851, p.174, including Eliza R. Ridgeway, Augustus Gibbard, Allen Clarke, Nicholas Rosenpower [sic], and Stephen Miller

For instance, Doggett’s directory lists 53 people living at numbers 136 through 150, on the west side of Forsyth Street between Delancey Street and Rivington Street, an area described in the map detail below. Among the occupants of these addresses were a vegetable seller, two butchers, a nurse, a painter, a basketmaker, an actor, a laborer, a porterhouse proprietor, a carman, a tailor and a tailoress, a plasterer, a weaver, two bootmakers, a tinsmith, a blacksmith, a physician, a segar maker, a paper box dealer, a seller of tea, and a chandler. Thirteen of the people listed offer no occupation. At least nine of those listed are women (some names include only initials), and all listed at those addresses are likely white. We know this because people of color are described elsewhere in the directory as "col’d." 
On the corner of Forsyth, at 38 Delancey Street, living with Louis Kellner, bootmaker, are the Stouts, William and John, butchers; Mrs. Walker and Sophia Smith, laundresses, and Ada Bell, a seamstress, who are all described as people of color.

Searching for Augustus Gibbard, resident at 138 Forsyth, in the 1850 U.S. Federal census, we find him, age 36, a clerk, living in New York City’s Ward 10, the location of the address in the map and directory. He lives with one Mary Gibbard, 30, likely his wife, and a child, Mary, age 3. I say likely as the 1850 census does not describe relationships, this begins in 1880.
In the same building (street name and number not supplied, remember) we have Eliza Ridgeway, 46, and (possibly) her children: Albert, 18, a bookbinder; Edward, 14; Thomas, 9; Julia, 6; and a relative, Charles, 30, occupation hard to read. Are these the same people listed in Doggett’s directory as living at 138?

Plate 41, Maps of the city of New York, 1853, showing 138-150 Forsyth Street

Well, bearing in mind that the census enumerator likely went from door to door on one side of the street, the people listed next to the Gibbards and Ridgeways likely lived on the same side of the street they did. This should mean that, in the houses on either side of them, we might find the people listed at 138 ½ and 140 Forsyth. And we do.
Next building down on the same census page, we see listed a number of people, including one Allen Clarke, 26, painter, who lives with his (likely) wife and children: Emma, 24; Andrew, 7; and Thomas, 5. Next door lives Nicholas Rosenbuekin, 31, a German-born basketmaker, and his (likely) wife, Cooney, 32 and children John, 4; Caroline, 7; and baby Henriken, 2 months. It seems likely that Nicholas Rosenbeukin and Nicholas Rosenpower, both basketmakers, are the same person.
Next door to the the Rosenbeukins live the Millers: Stephen, 30 (listed in the directory); Phillip, 21 (like Stephen, a baker); and Catherine, 23. The following households confirm that the string of names in the directory matches the names in the census.

Perris’s fire insurance atlas describes 138 Forsyth as a brick or stone residential building, with a "slate or metal roof and coped." Researching this post revealed no photograph of 138, so the description in the map is a surrogate for that, the next best thing. Using a map, a directory, and a census, researchers can identify an address in New York City in the 1850 census, discover who lived there, and imagine what their home looked like that year.

Plate 8 from G.W. Bromley's atlas of 1911 shows how the area had changed in the intervening 58 years, describing new features, cartographic and physical, including:

  • Borough, Block, and Lot numbers and building dimensions. This information helps researchers find property deeds and research the histories of their ancestors homes.

  • There are now fewer frame buildings and the area seems more built up, more developed.

  • The Bowery Mission, at 227 Bowery, a rescue mission and men’s shelter that opened in 1879 (and is still open today).

  • The Mills House, on Rivington, opened in 1897, the second of three hotels for poor, single men built by the philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills.

  • The People’s Theatre, a popular Yiddish Theatre on Bowery, reflects the neighborhood’s changing demographic as the Lower East Side becomes home to Russian Jews and Southern Italians.

  • Public Schools PS 35 and PS 20.

  • Most dramatically, the New York Subway is now open.

Plate 8: Bounded by W. 3rd Street, Great Jones Street, E. 3rd Street, Avenue A, Essex Street, Broome Street, and West Broadway, 1911 [detail]

Fire insurance maps are fantastic local history resources, and talk also of intimate biographical research. The maps describe daily life, identifying where our ancestors went to school, practiced their religion, got married, and spent their free time; the streets they walked, the shops they visited and, most important, where they and their friends and families lived. Maps illustrate and frame family history narratives.
In lieu of a photograph of a building, a fire insurance map may be the only evidence we have of the building's existence, and hint at what it looked like. Viewed over time, fire insurance maps describe physical changes, but also reflect changes in the population of the city, and where and how our ancestors lived.

Mapping lives

Looking at the neighborhood described in Plate 8, we might consider who lived there that year. 11-13 Rivington Street, for instance, is home to Yetta Meyers, 19. She was born in Russia to Morris Meyers and Rose Fuller. She immigrated to the United States about 1908. In 1911, she was an operator at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. We know Yetta lived at 11-13 Rivington because it is recorded in her death certificate, one of the few documents about her that describe her brief time in this country. How do we come to understand more about her life, when so few records are available?

Yetta Meyers, New York Evening World, March 27, 1911

Looking more closely at Plate 8, we see that, in 1911, 11-13 Rivington Street is a single six-story brick tenement building. It was built in 1903 by the architects Bernstein and Bernstein, seen here in a photograph taken in 1999, and is currently a hotel. In the 1910 U.S. Census, enumerated, 11-13 was home to 48 households, most of whom were immigrants to the United States from Russia, Italy, Turkey, Hungary, and Poland.

Did Yetta visit the places described in the map? Did she go to the People’s Theatre? What show was playing the night of her birthday? Or did she go to the Rivington Street branch of the New York Public Library? Perhaps she was learning English there? Maybe on a hot summer day, she sat in the library's roof reading room? Did her nieces and nephews go to the local public school?
Fire insurance maps describe cobbled streets. What noises would Yetta have heard through her window at 11-13 Rivington, as wagons and cars hit those cobbles?

People's Theatre Manhattan, Bowery, Percy Loomis Sperr, c.1934

Can we use the map to try and imagine the sights, sounds, and colors of Yetta’s neighborhood? Did it cater to new immigrants? Are there settlement houses? Different houses of worship? The Bowery Mission? The Mills House? What did these places do?
How long had the subway been open? Did Yetta take the Delancey Street subway to work? Or was that too expensive? Did she have to walk? Was there a tram or bus? Or did she take the elevated railroad? Are there maps that describe her route? Was there a park nearby?  

Rivington Street, exterior view, of Rivington Street Branch, c. 1910. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 100880

Now that we know the names of places in Yetta’s neighborhood, are there any pictures from that time? Can we see what people looked like then? Are those places still there? Can we visit them? Are these images that could help locate more records, or illustrate a family history? What was the building she lived in like? Are there books that describe the neighborhood? Or social conditions? Yetta's experience as an immigrant? Her life on the Lower East Side?
Whatever we find, Plate 8 from G.W. Bromley's atlas of 1911, a historical map describing space and time—the Lower East Side in 1911—has provided valuable clues to how our ancestors used to live, a jumping-off point for further investigation.

Previous, Part 1: Finding records

Next, Part 3: Place of origin and immigration stories