2021-10-11 5 min read


Notes, 2021-10-11.

Starting in 1867 and peaking sometime in the 1930’s, the Sanborn Map Company produced fire insurance maps for over 12,000 U.S. towns and cities. Employed to assess risk and reduce the need to send an underwriter to every property, the maps are wildly detailed, showing machine shops, blast furnaces, and various forges in an example from Bethlehem Steel. They sometimes included the population size, the prevailing direction of the wind, the location of paints and varnishes, and the number of both indoor and outdoor night watchmen. As one historian put it, “the Sanborn maps survive as a guide to American urbanization that is unrivaled by other cartography and, for that matter, by few documentary resources of any kind.”

I fell in love with Sanborns while pouring over microfilm of early 20th century Los Angeles. Attempting to tie a briefly mentioned industrial incident in a dusty publication to an actual location, it was painstaking, exasperating, and ultimately unfruitful work. But there was something so captivating about the maps' beautiful blend of utility and design: I found myself going back to the library to check “one last time,” as if the meticulousness of the maps meant there had to be an answer.

Unfortunately, I haven’t encountered many current resources - digital or otherwise - that create that same draw, and I find myself wondering: what practical, but seemingly mundane, activities or materials will serve future historians with such art and depth? (And no, it’s probably not twitter.)

Anyway, the Library of Congress has over 35,000 items in its online collection, so go get lost in your favorite city.

-Kate McMahon

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~11% of opens) was a brief (but super fascinating) summary on why trains have conical wheels. In the Member's Slack, our reading group finished The Big Score, culminating in a discussion with the author Michael Malone. This week we're starting The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals about Our Future with Robots, with the author, Kate Darling, joining our final discussion 2021-11-12.

Planning & Strategy.

Making & Manufacturing.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

Distribution & Logistics.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.


Inside the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, America's first National Museum. It opens once again to the public 2021-11-21.

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