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Old Insurance Maps Are Unlikely Sources of Stunning Typography

My time as a newspaper editor introduced me to the fascinating, dark art of page design. Each week, I’d tangle with Adobe InDesign and blindly toss around headlines and subheads, photos and big blocks of text and hope something would come together. I can still recall that first production day, using templates to lay out about 15 pages with next to no knowledge of how InDesign worked. Seemingly every step of the way required a Google query, but you tend to learn pretty quickly when pages are due in seven hours.
It was during those long battles with the InDesign toolbar that I grew to appreciate typography, an interest that has creeped into the fledgling design aspects of my music and songwriting work.
Lately, I’ve gotten deep into the beautiful typography used on the title pages of the timeless Sanborn maps, which date back to the late 1800s. Initially intended for fire insurance purposes, the birds-eye-view maps offer in great detail street layouts, types of buildings, even building materials for as many as 12,000 cities and towns. Wonder what your childhood neighborhood looked like in 1886 or 1911? The Sanborn maps would tell you. Today, they remain a vital resource for urban planning, historical research, and boring, post-Christmas afternoons.
My work with the local planning board introduced me to these brilliant records, but it was a friend’s mention on Facebook that set me on the hunt for maps of my hometown of Olean, NY. Sure enough, a site exists with 100 years’ worth of maps (the site only grants access to participating institutions. Bummer).
Anyway, some Sanborn maps come with a custom title page and an artful masthead for the given city, and it is truly incredible work.
Inspired, I set out to recreate them, spending a recent Saturday tied to Photoshop. Here’s a work-in-progress for gig flyers and other non-commercial, non-litigious, Sanborn-don’t-sue-me uses.
Meanwhile, songwriting is coming along swell this winter season, even as one song in particular is driving me mad in the studio. With some luck, I’ll have that tune, or tunes, to share in a bit and to discuss. Thanks for reading.