Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Insurance Maps for Research?

Gabrielle Here:

Sometimes I don't know what I enjoy more, writing or researching history. That's probably why the Heroes, Heroines, and History blog is such a good fit for me. 

I use many different resources for my research. Some of the more common are pouring over old newspapers, savoring the mundane details in a long-forgotten journal, and studying non-fiction books. But there are several other ways to go about research. Just this past weekend, I attended the Rendezvous at Grand Portage, Minnesota where people reenacted the voyageur culture from the fur trade during the years 1730-1790. I've seen a lady reenacting Betsy Ross and working on a flag at her home in Philadelphia, I've spoken to people portraying the original Pilgrims at Plimoth Plantation, and I've interacted with guides at Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois. Besides visiting museums and historical sites, writers can also interview people, go through original letters, and even watch period dramas (though I still check the facts presented there). 

But an unusual way I've discovered to find unique details is to look at old insurance maps.

I chuckle whenever I think about the people who created those stuffy insurance maps over a hundred years ago. They probably had no idea someone would come along and treat them like a long-lost treasure.

Here's a picture of my work station. The papers on the left are copies of insurance maps from the 1890's. The maps give amazing detail about the buildings in Little Falls, Minnesota, where I've set several of my books. It's a great resource to discover what types of businesses were in town during 1898. There were at least three cigar factories, two breweries, numerous millinery shops, dress makers, confectioneries, bakeries, hotels, cobblers, tailors, livery stables, banks, schools, churches, an opera house--not to mention flour mills, lumber mills, a paper mill, three brick yards, two iron works, blacksmiths...the list goes on and on! 

The maps give specific details about how the buildings were heated, if they had electricity or gas, if there were watchmen on duty, when the buildings were in operation, etc. They also indicate if the building had outhouses or indoor plumbing.

These maps have been invaluable to me over the years as I write my stories. Something as simple as an insurance map can become a priceless glimpse into the past. It makes me wonder what future generations will use to study our current culture.

Your Turn: if you're a writer, what is the most unique item you've used for research? If you're a reader, what kind of details do you enjoy in historical fiction? What's something unique you've learned by reading?

Gabrielle Meyer lives in central Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River with her husband and four children. As an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society, she fell in love with the rich history of her state and enjoys writing fictional stories inspired by real people and events.

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  1. I'm not educated well enough to spot errors in historical fiction, but as a reader you can tell if a writer has done thorough research of the period or they are just skimming the history and "fluffing" the story. I generally read the afterwords and notes that the author lists in the book, because if they care about documenting their research they obviously have done the hard work necessary! A book that sticks out to me is always "Where the Lilacs Bloom" by Jane Kirkpatrick. The horticulture was fascinating. I always learn something in a really good historical book, it's a matter of retaining the knowledge!

  2. I've been writing nearly 18 years, and this is the first time I've heard someone mention insurance maps for research. How do you go about finding them? One unique resource I've used is to go to the area where I want to set my story and look for "ranches for sale." When a large ranch is up for sale, they will have a pretty detailed description of the area, including the kinds of wildlife found there and even sometimes the types of trees and shrubs. This is great info for a writer.

  3. Hi Gabrielle, I, too, have a Sanborn insurance map I'm using for my current WIP set in St. Augustine, Florida. Although the date of my map is 1884 and my book takes place in 1875, I know it's pretty close to being accurate. Researching some of the places noted on the map told me whether they were built by 1875. Such interesting information! I still don't know a building labeled a "Fancy" is, do you? I also have a 2-part story written by a tourist to St.Augustine in 1874 and published in Harper's Magazine. It describes what she saw and did while there. It is awesome!

  4. I am a writer. The most unique item I have researched for my soon to be published children's book is a lizard. I don't like lizards but somehow I decided to write a story about one. :-)

  5. Sanborn Fire Maps are pure gold IMHO. Fun post!

  6. I am an avid reader and love historical details and settings. Among my favorite authors are Roseanna White, Ann Gabhart and Sarah Sundin, all of whom do impeccable research. I like stories about events like the World’s Fair and the San Francisco Eathquake. That’s why I like this blog and the authors that are involved here. Thanks for the bounty of information.