Exploring Communities: Using Historic Maps to Learn about the Past

by Rebecca Furer for Teach It


Historical Background

Sanborn fire insurance maps were first published in 1867 to show how great a risk of fire there was in any town or city. The maps include all of the buildings in town, colored-coded to show what materials were used to build them (mostly “frame”/wood, brick, or stone). The maps also include important public buildings (government buildings, theaters, churches, schools, etc.), street names, and additional information. For larger cities, the maps take up several pages, like an atlas. For some communities, they are the most detailed maps available from the late 1800s to early 1900s. They are a great source of information about the past for historians–young and old!

D1: Potential Compelling Question

Why do our communities look the way they do today?


  • In what ways has our community’s past shaped how it looks today?
  • How has geography affected our community over time?
  • How have science, technology, and innovation affected communities?


Use the Yale University Library website–Connecticut Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps— to select and download a Sanborn fire insurance map to fit your teaching goals (you can look at the maps in your browser, but downloading the high-quality PDFs will enable students to make out more details.)

You may choose just one map from your town or a nearby town, if you wish to focus on your own community, or select a few maps to show different types of environments—large cities, medium-sized towns, or smaller towns—if your focus is on urban, suburban, and rural communities. Note that many (but not all) Connecticut towns are represented in Sanborn maps. Here are a few samples from around the state:


Using the Library of Congress’s Primary Source Analysis process (download Teacher’s Guide), give students time to examine each of the maps you have selected, and ask them to OBSERVE, REFLECT, and QUESTION. For larger towns, you may want to start with the “title page” and then also look at a downtown detail page and one from farther outside the city center.

  1.  Observe: What do you notice first? What information does the map provide? What geographic elements are included? Which way is north/south/east/west and how do you know? Are there words on the map?
  2. Reflect: What do you think was important to the people who made this map? Does the map give us any clues about the time in which it was made? If you are familiar with this town today, what is the same and what is different? Or how is the town shown in this map similar to or different from your own?
  3. Question: What does this map make you wonder?


  • Imagining they are cartographers/map-makers, students will think about their own town and develop a list of all of the special places (public buildings, landmarks, public spaces, etc.) that should be included in a new map of town.
  • Students will try their hand at making a map using rulers and graph paper. Making a map of the classroom is an easy project to start with; if your room has floor tiles, students can use those to mark out the dimensions on the graph paper.


Place to GO

As a class, visit monuments, landmarks, public spaces, or important public buildings in your town (post office, library, town hall, museum or historic house, etc.) to explore the history of your town and how the community has changed over time.

Things To DO

As a class or with their families, students can explore their community looking for different types of building materials and architecture and record examples with a camera, in a sketch, or in a chart/graphic organizer. Which materials are the same as those shown in the Sanborn maps? Which are different?

Read a book for kids: Follow That Map!: A First Book of Mapping Skills by Scot Ritchie.

Read a book for teachers: Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years by David Sobel.

Websites to VISIT

Articles to READ


For lots of great articles related to architecture from ConnecticutHistory.org: Architecture topic page