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Doing Historical Company Research: A Resource Guide

Using Photographs & Maps

Photographs and maps are a good way to add to the understanding of a business or community's business environment.

The post about Janes, Fowler, Kirtland Co. used on the Introduction page of this guide is a good illustration for the bits and pieces that can be put together to provide information on a company, while a blog post from the Library of Congress blog Picture This "Double Take: A Trunk Full of Questions" is an example of how pictures, advertisements, news, and other sources can be used together. When it comes to maps a post on Inside Adams looking at 8th Street SE in Washington, D.C. can show how useful the Sanborn maps can be.


If you are looking for photographs of a particular business, you need to find photograph collections that historical societies and other research collections may have. The Go Beyond the Library section of this guide can help you locate such institutions. Another option is to look in newspapers for stories about the business, the business owner, or where the business might have appeared in an image.

Searching for images of a business can be challenging. There may actually be no images of a particular place. Images in research collections and in newspaper articles often have incomplete information attached to an image while articles often refer to things by whatever makes sense in the context of the article or advertisement. It may be necessary to search more broadly than just on the business name and you may have to do several searches. Search or use:

  • the street name.
  • the neighborhood.
  • the names of the intersection or biggest streets nearby.
  • the names of the businesses next door.
  • the name of the businesses and buildings nearby if you know them - churches and banks are particularly popular photographic subjects.

However, if your starting point is a photograph, look at the image and see what information the image itself can provide. Any information that you have about a company can be used to search. The more search options you have, the easier it will be to search for images and improve your results.

  • What business, buildings, and other landmarks can be identified.
  • Can you place any of those on a street, in a city, town, or neighborhood.
  • If there is no date, can you figure out a general time period.

Once you have looked at the image you can then find photograph collections and search in newspapers using the above search options. After having identified a known place you can use a directory to look up a particular name.


Maps are another way to add to understanding the business by understanding the neighborhood. Most maps don't show much detail, but some may make reference to churches, railroads, ferries, and other notable landmarks. Panorama maps often including drawings of the buildings and can be helpful even if the scale and perspective aren't exact. The information you have or are looking for, may determine what sources you can use and what sources might not be helpful. You need to have the resources for the place and the time. If you have business location, you can figure out where it is on a map.

Those maps that look at properties for tax and other purposes will give necessary detail. The Sanborn fire insurance maps are a good example because they provide quite a bit of detail and were published regularly. They have a particular publishing pattern so you would just need one that is close in date.

An Example from New Orleans

While the "Double Take: A Trunk Full of Questions" post referenced above was a good example of how pictures can add to the understanding of a business, here is an example illustrating how maps and photographs can add more to a project.

Here is an image from New Orleans. The location in the title and description, isn't entirely familiar or exact, but there are clues to get started.

  1. It says it is St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans
  2. The catalog record indicates date of 1901

But where exactly on St. Charles Avenue is this picture taken? Other details may help narrow down a more exact location.

Martin H. Zahner, contributor. St. Charles Street, New Orleans, La., 1901. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


Zooming in on parts of the photograph reveals a few additional details. While the streetcar tracks were obvious and confirm a general location, the names of several businesses became more clear. A business name meant using a directory that would give their address, while newspapers provided other additional information. If a directory has a section where the address is the entry point, other businesses along that area can also be found.

The right side of the image includes:

  • Western Union (301 St Charles, JR Terhune, manager)
  • St. Charles Hotel (207/209 St. Charles)
  • Texas & Pacific Railway (207/209 St. Charles. Their entry in the telephone directory under the railway ticketing office include - Robert Strong was the general agents)

The left side of the image includes:

  • streetcars (40 Canal Line Dryads St. Charles Street Railroad Co., office at 285 Henry Clay Ave.)
  • Crescent City Steam Laundry (ofc, but Henry Loeb & Co were the proprietors and they were at 423 Baronne)
  • WFT Moir Shirt Factory (204 St. Charles)
  • Union Ticket Agency (210 St. Charles, MK Bitterman)
  • William F Bohne (214 St. Charles, shoe store)
  • Betts & Betts & Dyar (Charles & WH Betts of Denver) and Alexander S. Dyar (214 St Charles, physicians)
  • George H. Holthouse (cigar retailer, 200 St. Charles but the next year it changed to his wife Mrs Emma Holthouse)

To understand the physical layout of the block and get a better perspective on how all of the street, a map is the next step.

In this case, a Sanborn fire insurance map from 1896 is the closest date that covers this part of the city, gets closest to the necessary time period, and is detailed in the way that is needed. If you don't know an area, determining the particular sheet is a bit tricky and may require looking at several volumes and editions (here are two blogs posts that might provide some insight on using them).

The block in question was either on sheet 103 or 104, and looking more closely at both was the only way to know. In this case, Sheet 103 is the one that that shows this particular block between Common and Gravier, while sheet 104 would show the location of the Western Union office. Most maps will not be as detailed as the one from Sanborn which sometimes does make note of businesses' names, but they can still aid in understanding the business's history within the context of the place it was located.

Sanborn Fire Insurance map. New Orleans, Volume 1, Sheet 103, 1896. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.