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Insurance historical ephemera: Fire maps
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Insurance historical ephemera: Fire maps

Managing risk isn't a new concept - merchants in ancient days used to distribute loads across many vessels to protect against weather hazards and robbers; they would also band together to insure their goods through various mechanisms. But modern insurance really began taking shape in London in the 17th century. Fires were a devastating risk for businesses and homeowners alike. The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroying more than 13,000 houses, and it prompted Sir Christopher Wren to include the first fire insurance company, the "Insurance Office for Houses" in his plan for London. Soon after, other fire insurance companies began cropping up.

Here in the US, Wikipedia says:

"In Colonial America, the first insurance company that underwrote fire insurance was formed in Charles Town (modern-day Charleston), South Carolina in 1732. Benjamin Franklin helped to popularize and make standard the practice of insurance, particularly Property insurance to spread the risk of loss from fire, in the form of perpetual insurance. In 1752, he founded the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Franklin's company made contributions toward fire prevention. Not only did his company warn against certain fire hazards, it refused to insure certain buildings where the risk of fire was too great, such as all wooden houses.

One of the tools that insurance companies used to assess fire insurance risk was fire insurance maps, and the most well known of the companies in the US was Sanborn Maps. The company produced approximately 12,000 detailed maps of US towns and cities on a scale of 50 feet to one inch. They were relied on as a key underwriting tool by insurance companies until the 1950s. They weren't the first, however.:

"Mapping for insurance, and specifically fire insurance, purposes had existed for a century prior to the emergence of the Sanborn Company, first beginning in London in the late 18th century with the Phoenix Assurance Company.[2] In the decades following the end of the Civil War, fire insurance mapping grew rapidly, mirroring the flourish of growth in the country, the rebuilding of the South and massive westward expansion. Factors such as the Homestead Act, railroad construction, the Second Industrial Revolution and massive immigration to the United States all fostered huge population growths, urbanization, and heightened demand for mapping. Daniel Alfred Sanborn, a civil engineer and surveyor, began working on fire insurance maps in 1866. That year, he was contracted by the Aetna Insurance Company to prepare maps of areas in Tennessee. About the same time, he developed similar maps of Boston, published as Insurance Map of Boston, Volume 1, 1867. Seeing a lucrative market for this type of map, he established the D. A. Sanborn National Insurance Diagram Bureau in New York City to publish the Boston atlas and develop and sell maps of additional areas.

The above excerpt is from the Wikipedia page on the Sanborn Map Company, which includes a fascinating report about a young Warren Buffet's involvement with the company.Incidentally, the Sanborn Company is still a very active concern specializing in geospatial property solutions offering aerial imagery and other services to the insurance sector and other industries.

Today, the Library of Congress houses the Sanborn Map Collection in a publicly accessible, searchable data base. Currently there are over 25,000 sheets from over 3000 city sets online in the following states: AK, AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, GA, ID, IL, IN, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MO, MS, NC, ND, NE, NH, NJ, NV, OH, OK, PA, SD, TX, VA, VT, WY and Canada, Mexico, Cuba sugar warehouses, and U.S. whiskey warehouses.

For a sample, check out the Sanborn Fire Insurance 1867 Map from Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

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