Fire Insurance Plans Overview
Fire insurance plans are a unique and very detailed form of mapping that existed from approximately the 1870s to the 1970s—a period of about 100 years. At the time of their creation, buildings in cities were mostly made of wood and fire fighting techniques were rudimentary. Cities were growing rapidly as a result of the shift from agriculture to industry, and so, their urban cores were becoming very densely populated. As a result, small fires could quickly grow out of control and spread, destroying large portions of the city. Many North American cities suffered just such a fate, including Toronto in 1904.
In response to these disasters, companies such as the Charles E. Goad Company in Canada, and the Sanborn Company in the United States, were established. These companies produced very detailed plans and atlases of every major city in North America, showing every individual building in the built-up urban core. Colours and symbols were used to describe every aspect of each building's structure, from the materials used in its construction, to the presence and location of hazardous materials on the property. Insurance companies eagerly purchased these plans as it enabled them to estimate the cost of insurance for a client without having to go to the expense of sending their own employees to the site to make an inspection and assessment. The plans also allowed them to simultaneously see all the adjacent properties, which meant they could now factor in any potential hazards posed by these neighbouring structures as well. By the early 1970s modern building materials and methods--as well as improved firefighting equipment and techniques--had reduced the risk of fire dramatically making the production of these labour-intensive, expense to produce, fire insurance plans cost-prohibitive.
Today the plans are no longer used for fire insurance purposes but, instead, are used as a highly detailed historical record of the city’s evolution over time. Engineers, environmental scientists and biologists use them to determine whether particular properties within the city may have been contaminated in the past based upon former land use. Archaeologists, genealogists, and historians use them in their research. Heritage planners restoring historical buildings use them to determine the structure’s original size and form as well as discovering at what times additions or alterations may have occurred. Human geographers use them to study socio-economic changes within a neighbourhood over time. The size and type of buildings as well as their construction materials can suggest whether the neighbourhood was home to the working class or the wealthy. It can reveal whether it was primarily residential or commercial, thriving or in decline. The types of neighbourhood businesses, schools, and places of worship can be clues to its ethnic and religious composition.
The Lloyd Reeds Map Collection (LRMC) has fire insurance plans for the City of Hamilton dated 1898 & 1911 (online and out-of-copyright), and 1947 & 1964 (under copyright and only viewable in paper, hardcopy format in the LRMC).