You have probably used, or know someone who has used, a GPS map system to find the best route to a given destination. The new technology is a great comfort to the directionally challenged or if exploring unknown territory.
A historian’s GPS starts with a much older technology and usually begins with a Sanborn Map. The table-sized maps were developed to track fire insurance liabilities throughout the country. While that might not sound very interesting, the maps are a great source of information about the size of a building and the changing uses and ownership of your house or business. In Key West, there is a chance that if your house dates back to the 1800s, it could have been one of the 200 small cigar factories called chinchales.
An example of the changing uses of a building can be seen at the corner of White and Truman Streets. The large, two story, stone structure is currently the home of a yoga studio, travel agency and rental apartments.
Check the Sanborn maps in the reference department at the Monroe County Library, and you will find the structure started as a cigar factory. At the time, Truman was referred to as Division Street. It was called Division Street because it was the end of town. Most of the land south and east of Truman was low-lying salt marshes well into the early 1900s.
Smart phones and computers offer another popular way to see where you are going using Google Street View maps. Check an address anywhere in the country, and you can see a street view of what that location looks like today.
A historian can use a similar technique indexing archival photos from the past. If you go to the Monroe County Library Flickr site and enter the address of the White Street building, you will see that the building was named the Stone Hotel and had Key West Hobby Land Model Car Racing on the first floor. The site has an extensive listing of photos from the 1965 property appraiser’s records as well as photos dating back to the late 1800s for some sites.
If you ask some of the middle aged Conchs on the island, they will remember the first floor rental as a hospital supply store. While every change of use or structural modification to a building may not be of interest, there often can be something in your buildings history that will capture your imagination.
For those of you that are committed to your phone or computer screen, you can find the Sanborn maps from 1890 through 1912 at palmm.fcla.edu. The site is part of the University of Florida’s digital map program. Click on the Florida Fire Insurance Map link to see what your neighborhood looked like before you were born.