Discovery of Sanborn maps for privy digging


Well-Known Member
This will also be posted in General Discussion forum
This story is true and as accurate as my memory is able to recall. Over the years I have told this information to others and have been mostly disbelieved. I don’t know why, it is not a feather in my cap and makes me no more important or a celebrity than anyone else. So believe it or not!In about 1963 I discovered bottle collecting and a short time later met a fellow from the Southern California area who became one of my favorite characters. A very nice but unusual guy, I’ll call him Rock. Rock was, among other interesting things, a historian who specialized in the local 19[sup]th[/sup] century. He was very industrious, imaginative and inventive. He thought outside the box when it came to hunting for bottles. He was particularly interested in 19[sup]th[/sup] century architecture living in a third quarter century farm house himself. While doing architecture research he came across the Sanford Fire Insurance maps in a metropolitan California Title Insurance Companies archives. These maps are drawn in exact scale. He was able to borrow the original copies and had them copied at a blueprinting establishment. These things are large and show buildings of all types in amazing detail including the exact location of the privy structures. They dated from the 1880s to the 1920s. (Remember, Southern California is not all that old compared to the East) He then returned the originals to their home. He tested these out in his local area and then offered my local area maps to me. We made tissue paper tracings so we didn’t have to carry the very revealing full sheets to the dig areas and take the chance of discovery. We felt the need of secrecy as this method of locating privies was unheard of. For a period of several years we were able to astound our digging partners with quick probing experiences. They didn’t have a clue.On one occasion, after an entire city block was surface scraped clean of structures, I probed out no less than 2 dozen privies, marked them and then my team blitzed the block in a weekend. We all pocketed dozens / hundreds of bottles and I got all the locals as my share. The team was totally mystified.As a brief explanation of the maps intended use, the Sanborn Company, as I understand it, were charged with the responsibility of mapping, in detail, all structures within a certain jurisdiction to establish a “Fire Rating” for that municipality. Depending on the type of structures in the area and the municipalities ability to control fires in their area, individual insurance companies then set rates for individual properties. In other words, the lower the risk and / or the better the fire protection, the lower the rates to individuals.If you have questions I will be happy to try and answer them. I realize I haven’t covered it all. If you know of an earlier use of Sanborn maps let’s hear it.

andy volkerts

Well-Known Member
What Jim is telling everybody is true, as I have a collection of the maps from an old real estate company, that I obtained for the city of Stockton back in 1965 when we were digging for bottles. What he is NOT telling you is this, not all issues of the sanborne maps showed outbuildings. Some of the maps you see on flea-bay on cd roms don't show outhouses or small outbuildings, or if they do they are just small squares without names or xes, no foot measurements. You just about have to get a set of maps that were used by the fire insurance adjusters themselves to get all that detail. WHICH is why we didn't take take the actual maps out and give away our secret, not only that but the da-- things are big and clumsy. mine actually give lot dimensions. and bldg. dimensions between bldgs. and lot boundaries. also feet measurements from street centers to lot boundaries, you can lay out a bare block from the maps, and fall in the holes where the cellars would have been. You can find pigeon droppings with them. The maps some of my present bottle digging buddies try to use are worthless. The FINAL upshot of all this is if you were to somehow cajol me or manage to steal the maps from me they wouldn't be of much use, because we have already been there and dug there, and this scenario has been played out over most of California and Washington and Oregon. I don't know about back east. but us diggers have been hitting them holes for just about forever......Andy


Well-Known Member
Being ignorant on the subject and seeing you mentioned "I realize I haven’t covered it all." I'll phrase this as a question.Could it be that they may not all be updated often and properly? It seams to me that if they weren't or you didn't have complete sets that any that were moved may not be shown and probing would still be a good idea. Anyway, cool remembrances of old times you had Jim. You had an edge on the competition for sure. [:)]

andy volkerts

Well-Known Member
Sure Eric, any sanborne map will show you the main bldg. on a lot, but some of them don't give distances to other bldgs. or lot edges, and if the lot has been cleared, say several lots together, you will have to do a buttload of probing, whereas the issues with measurements would almost tell you where to stick in the probe within a foot or less, so just sayin, don't buy the e-bay maps unless there are distances on the lots. You got any idea how many probe sticks you could do onna fifty by onehundred foot lot?? try about20 on the short side to cover fifty by ten feet, that's ifn ya know exactly where the back of the lot line was, cant count them 30 foot wide alleys ya know. just sayin its a pig inna poke for some of those poorly done maps. I have been stumped several times by newer bldgs. and then theres always concrete to cover up a lot of the areas...anyways have fun, itsa fascinating hobby especially if ya got a strong back........Andy


Well-Known Member
Just as an aside; I use the more generalized maps such as those produced by D. G. Beers & Company. Being that my main digging occurs in (now) very rural wooded areas (communities that were formed in the 1810's and eventually experienced mass abandoned around 1900 - 10) all I need is the cellar hole location. It's very rare in my area to NOT be able to easily locate privies once a cellar hole is located. Just walk to the North East and look for the correct vegetation, and that (or those) ever present "sunken squares". If after clicking the link below, you simple click on "overlay" to see the 1869 Beers Co map "overlapped" on the current Google map (satellite works to). After playing with that you can see why I love That said, If Sanborn maps were available for Allegany county New York I would be very interested, as I am a map nerd at heart.


Well-Known Member
ALL RIGHTY NOW! Here is some info I have on the maps, and trust me, I spend every day during the winter pouring over my maps. There is a firm called ProQuest that owns the rights to the digitized Sanborn maps that lease out the rights for use to mainly large libraries. I belong to the mid-continent public library system out of Kansas City. For $40 a year I have remote access on any computer or I-Phone to any digitized Sanborn map in the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. Very handy. Most public libraries have on microfilm a local reel of maps for their locale and surrounding areas, and if not, they can request them from other libraries as they are often on a swap type basis from library to library in the state. Also, many state universities have digitized copies available on their web sites. Missouri for example has university of Missouri library systems digital library available to access for free the maps for Missouri only. The neat thing about these versions is they are colorized like the originals, yellow for frame, red for brick and blue for stone or other. Very handy in some cases. The thing about the maps are they are firstly only a snap shot of what was there at the time they were made. They were updated about every 7-8 years on average, so many things could happen in-between time. Also, not every neighborhood was mapped out for some reason still unclear to me. Example, my home was built in 1884 and there are several around me that are from the 70's and some from the 60's, and yet the first map of my area is from 1899! Also, some details are inaccurate at best and in a few rare cases are way off. We have a local jail that is well documented as being from the 1870's, yet is omitted from the earliest map from 1885, appearing first on the 1890 map. We joke about who was sitting at the bar getting wasted and copying the previous map rather than going out and doing the actual work! (Any census worker supervisors out there know about that trick!) Also, baffling as it seems, St. Louis maps begin in the 1900's. I suspected the maps were copied to micro film originally based on historical importance and they left out neighborhoods deemed less important such as immigrant tenements or certain racial neighborhoods. Problem is, the keys to the map don't seem to be any more inclusive than the maps themselves. Also, small towns don't appear to have ever been mapped, and certainly out in the country or past early city limits were omitted. Another interesting side note is the maps CAN vary greatly from region to region as well as year to year. In the town I grew up in (San Luis Obispo, Ca.) all the maps clearly label the privies as "out ho" Or "outhouse" whereas here in the Midwest you are somewhat on your own, based on the location and size of the structures footprint. One map done in 1913 actually labels many structures as "outhouses" but the few I have been able to hunt appear to have no basis for what we are looking for. I suspect in many cases an outhouse is simply another label for a shed or "outbuilding." Bottom line is, they are simply another tool in the bag, and like a probe, the only sure way of knowing is to dig! I know some diggers who prefer NOT to look at the maps, relying on their time proven methods, yet some structures defy reason or common sense as to location. Some houses faced different directions than one would assume, or built in an alley instead of a street side. There are many reasons for checking out the maps and around here the main thing I try to keep in mind is they tend to show either where the privies were or were NOT! Also, they don't show where the earlier ones were if the town (like Hannibal) predates the earliest Sanborn map by 60 years! Lastly, this had been a well kept secret of the urban archaeologists for years until the late 70's so much has been dug using the maps. That said, much has been overlooked by relying TOO MUCH on the maps. Hope this helps and happy hunting everyone! Jack


Well-Known Member
Yes, I am afraid my little town of Blountstown, FL in Calhoun County, Florida is just too small to have any very detailed maps of it. I do wonder if they have some detailed maps of Brewton, AL?

Latest posts

Members online

No members online now.

Latest threads

Forum statistics

Latest member
terry teague