Extraordinary Sanborn atlas of Harvard University

Sanborn Map Company / revisions by “Lennox”, HARVARD UNIVERSITY INCLUDING MISCELLANEOUS PROPERTY CAMBRIDGE, MASS. 1940[.] CORRECTED TO APR. 1943. [New York]: Sanborn Map Company, 1940/43.
Elephant folio atlas (25 ¾”h x 23”w), with key sheet plus 13 maps printed back-to-back on very heavy stock, original stenciled hand color. Most sheets with pasted-on updates and corrections in the Sanborn manner, several sheets with annotations in pencil. Tan buckram bound by screw-posts, red-leather corners and title label. Minor soiling to maps and minor wear and soiling to binding, but better than very good for a Sanborn atlas.

A marvelous and very rare fire insurance atlas of Harvard University, published in 1940 by the Sanborn Map Company and with pasted-on updates to 1943.

This atlas consists of a key map and 13 single-page maps, each ca. 25” by 21” and executed at the colossal scale of 50 feet to the inch. In aggregate they depict every architectural feature on the Harvard campus and on other properties owned by the University in Cambridge and Boston. Each building is of course shown in plan view and named, but the scale of the maps allows for a staggering level of detail: Color-coding indicates construction materials, interior floor plans are shown, and a host of symbols indicate features affecting insurability, such as window types, door types, elevators, sprinkler systems, and fire alarms. Likewise, along the streets the maps have symbols indicating different types of water lines, four types of hydrant, water pumps, fire alarm boxes, and so on.

As usual with Sanborn atlases, this one bears pasted-on correction and update slips on almost every page. These were printed at Sanborn’s Pelham, New York printing plant, then distributed to representatives in the field, who would visit customers and laboriously paste in the slips. In the present atlas, one such slip of particular note is that on sheet 2 for Houghton Library, constructed in 1941-42. To the southeast of Houghton a nondescript structure has been crossed out in pencil, with a note reading “NEW F.P. LIBRARY”. This became Lamont Library, opened in 1949, and in 1976 in this area the University opened the underground Pusey Library, which houses the Harvard Map Collection.

The atlas bears witness to other important changes on campus in recent years. Above all, in terms of its long-term effect on campus life, was the introduction of the House System in the 1930s. This was, ironically, funded by Yale alum Edward S. Harkness, who sought to introduce a more intimate, cloistered undergraduate experience on the order of Cambridge and Oxford Universities. The first seven Harvard houses—Dunster, Eliot, Gore, Leverett, Lowell, Standish and Winthrop–were constructed away from the original campus, on or near the Charles River, and may be seen on sheets 3, 4 and 5.

The Sanborn Map Company
After Rand McNally, the firm of Sanborn, in one incarnation or another, is probably the oldest more-or-less continually operating map publisher in the United States. D. A. Sanborn published his first fire insurance maps in his 1867 Insurance Map of Boston, and over the next century the Sanborn Map Company went on to publish fire insurance maps of more than 12,000 American cities incorporating no fewer than seven hundred thousand individual map sheets.

The key to Sanborn’s success was its staggering commitment to monitoring and mapping the rapid growth of America’s cities and towns. At its height it employed hundreds of employees in the field and hundreds more at its production facilities in Pelham, Chicago and San Francisco. The scale of this effort enabled the firm, not only to issue atlases and maps of thousands of American municipalities, but to produce and distribute frequent updates during a period of rapid urban change.

The company is still active today, as a subsidiary of real-estate data firm EDR and known simply as “Sanborn”. Local government, surveyors and others have long since replaced the insurance industry as its customer base, and its products are now delivered in digital format.

In all, a rare and remarkable atlas, documenting one of the world’s great educational institutions at a time of rapid change.

OCLC 77061293 (Harvard only), as of Jan. 2022. Another is held at the Library of Congress. Background on the Sanborn Map Company from the Library of Congress.