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American Women: Resources from the Geography and Map Collections

Land Use Maps

Insurance maps, published both as individual sheets and as bound volumes, are a major resource for studying urban land use in the United States in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century. For example, the Library's collection of Sanborn Company fire insurance maps of U.S. cities produced between 1867 and the late 1950s consists of approximately 700,000 sheets for 12,000 cities and towns assembled in atlas format. They were acquired from sources that include copyright deposits, transfers from the Bureau of the Census, gifts, and purchases. Their original purpose was to provide data for insurance underwriters estimating potential risks to urban structures when calculating insurance rates. The need for detailed information about the construction materials used for each building, the number of floors in each structure, and the nature of the commercial activity taking place in large buildings resulted in a block-by-block inventory in the densely populated areas of most American cities and towns. Color is used to indicate construction materials for each building. In addition, the maps show individual dwellings and outbuildings and property lines.

Extensively labeled, the maps frequently identify structures such as women's colleges, seminaries, schools, and academies; hospitals for women, including maternity wards; religious structures, including convents, orphanages, and schools; cemeteries; factories and warehouses; and prisons. They show businesses frequented by women such as shops selling dry goods, millinery, or groceries.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. Reno, Washoe County, Nevada.1899. Geography and Map Division.

Chinatown, seen in the lower right corner of sheet no. 5 for Reno, Nevada, 1899, is an area of the city associated with activities such as gambling, drinking, and prostitution. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps provide sufficient information to define neighborhoods, including residential areas with large homes indicative of relative affluence, and to identify gender-related activities.

Another indication of gendered space is the label “F.B.,” an abbreviation for “Female Boarding,” and “W'House” or “Ill Fame,” contemporary terms for buildings used by prostitutes. These buildings are frequently grouped together forming “Red Light Districts” and are invariably located close to wharves, saw mills, the kinds of factories that primarily employed male workers, warehouses, and saloons, all of which were at that time predominantly male-occupied space. There are many examples in the insurance map collection documenting the presence of prostitution. The Fire Map of Honolulu, published by the Board of Fire Underwriters of the Territory of Hawaii in 1906, uses the terms “Ill Fame” and “W'House” for buildings located near a fertilizer plant, pig pens, the Honolulu Gas Works, and petroleum storage tanks, not far from “Prison Road.” Other structures in Honolulu used by women, include the Kawaiaao Seminary and the Kaiulani Home for Girls, the Girls' Reform School, which has a nearby Matrons' Residence, and Mrs. Freeth's Boarding House.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for Reno, Nevada, in 1899 show schools, churches, a Young Men's Christian Association building, the Salvation Army building, two foundling and orphan homes, a mental hospital with male and female wards, and a Chinese quarter. Reno's Chinatown included boarding houses, restaurants, saloons, rooming houses, tenements, and gambling places, and had its own physician. It was adjacent to a large area labeled “FB” near the commercial center of the city, in an area with hotels, saloons, garages, and a variety of other businesses (see illustration).

An interesting aspect of the secular grade schools in Reno—Mount Rose School and the McKinley Park Grammar School—is that, although they appear to be coeducational, the school buildings are divided almost equally into two distinct areas, one for “Manual Training,” the other for “Domestic Science,” which suggests that the sexes occupied different parts of the schoolhouse and studied separate curricula. There is no such division apparent in the Dominican Sisters' Catholic School, which is near the order's convent, or in Mary Dolan's School.

The campus of the University of Nevada on sheet 32 of the Reno Sanborn fire insurance map shows the location of Manzanita Hall girls' dormitory and the girls' dining hall that are close to each other in an otherwise isolated area of the campus. Lincoln Hall, the boys' dormitory, is much closer to the rest of the college buildings and has no separate dining facilities. Steward Hall, near the classroom buildings, has both a kitchen and dining room and may be where the male students dined.

Examination of the Sanborn sheets for Alaska in the 1920s reveals that, despite its name, the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks, which might generally be thought to have solely male students, was undoubtedly coeducational because there is a women's dormitory on the campus. Fairbanks also had a hospital with an adjoining “Nurse's Cottage” and a beauty parlor.

The Sanborn atlas maps of the frontier towns of Cordova, Douglas, Haines, and Juneau, Alaska, dated 1927, show that all had areas of town with groups of buildings labeled as female boardinghouses. They are found near saloons, saw mills and lumberyards, fish canneries, and large commercial structures such as iron works and warehouses. Comparing the Alaskan towns with other mill towns such as Gastonia, North Carolina, reveals that the cotton mill towns that employed large numbers of women were unlikely to have adjacent areas labeled this way. The young women working in the mills appear to have resided in boardinghouses, structures marked “D” for dwelling, and occasionally in tenements. The number of houses of prostitution in a factory city or town seems to have been directly related to the gender of those working in the large industries in those locales.

The highly detailed and systematic mapping used on fire insurance maps makes them an extremely valuable source for studies of urbanization and urban change, including the development of tenements in inner cities that received large numbers of immigrants, industrialization, the growth of suburbs, and the evolution of gender-specific institutions. They also can be used to determine distance traveled by women between their residences and places of employment, including the routes taken by domestic and factory workers to and from work. Factoring in the addresses of close relatives and the location of the churches, schools, and businesses frequented by a particular woman, the scope of her world can be studied. Because of the large scale to which they are drawn and their highly detailed labeling, fire insurance maps are among the best cartographic resources for studying patterns of land use and gendered spaces in urban areas.

Within sight of the White HouseNewspaper clipping. 189-. Geography and Map Division

Rarely individually cataloged, Sanborn map sheets are controlled by arrangement by city and state. The major finding aid is the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online Checklist where sheets can be searched by state and city.

In addition to insurance maps, there are other kinds of maps that provide information on land use and changes in use in gendered spaces. An excellent example is a map that was clipped from a District of Columbia newspaper in the 1890s. Entitled Within Sight of the White House its subtitle is “Section of Washington, D.C., Known as ‘Hooker’s Division,' Which Contains 50 Saloons and 100 Bawdy-Houses—List of 61 Places Where Liquor Is Sold with Government But without City Licenses” (see illustration).

The subject of the map and the accompanying article is the failure of certain establishments to pay local taxes on liquor, and the names of the offending proprietors are listed. One hundred and nine brothels occupy the area shown on the map, which is now known as the Federal Triangle area of Washington, D.C. In the 1890s, it was the center of the city—where the U.S. Treasury, four newspapers, banks, opera houses, and hotels, in addition to the White House, were located. There, too, were 109 businesses where large numbers of women worked as prostitutes. Of the sixty-one named proprietors who did not pay the local tax, no more than four have male given names—Ray Astor, Lou Roberts, Willie Gilmore, and Gussie Smith. It is possible, in fact, that even these four were female, as the names are ambiguous with regard to gender, and judging from the fifty-seven obviously female given names, most of these businesses were run by women. Shown is the area where Joseph Hooker, whom President Lincoln appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, camped with his men. They were referred to as “Hooker's Division,” and the name became synonymous with prostitution. An accompanying article indicates that the term “bawdy house” refers to houses of prostitution but not to “houses of assignation,” indicating that different social and economic relationships were involved in these establishments.

Print Materials Referenced