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Steampunk Inspiration: Sanborn Maps

Title pages from old insurance maps are models for steampunk and neo-Victorian design

Thursday, May 21, 2020
Sanborn montage

Old maps might seem like an unusual source for design inspiration. But the fire insurance maps published in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the Sanborn Map Company have had an enormous influence on neo-Victorian design, and no doubt steampunk design as well. It’s not the maps themselves that have inspired designers, but the title pages displaying city names in ornate lettering, shading, and fine lines.

For some good examples, see these Bacardi ads by Kevin Cantrell, a graphic designer known for his contemporary treatments of Victorian design styles. Then check out the Sanborn title pages in the image above or in the photo gallery below.


Sanborn Map Company was founded in 1867 as the D.A. Sanborn National Insurance Diagram Bureau, and soon became the dominant provider of fire insurance maps. These highly detailed representations of urban areas were used by insurance companies to assess fire hazards. The maps eventually covered 12,000 cities and towns in North America.

The maps were not cheap. For example, the 1889 map book for Portland, Oregon had a cover price of $75, or about $2100 in 2018 dollars.

Sanborn SF detail

When you view these maps online, they may appear to have gray shades, but that’s due to scaling, which blurs the fine lines. To truly appreciate the detail, you have to view them at a high resolution, as you can see here.

Sanborn maps published prior to 1924 are in the public domain, and samples can be found in many places on the web. The Library of Congress has a large collection of these maps, as well as a brief history of insurance maps and the Sanborn Map Co.

Many universities and regional libraries also maintain collections of Sanborn maps. They include:

New York Public Library

Pennsylvania University Libraries

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

University of Texas Libraries

Digital Library of Georgia

University of Florida

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

Bibliodyssey, a blog in Australia, has a small collection of Sanborn title pages obtained from various sources.

Sanborn-Inspired Fonts

Sanborn font samples

The distinctive lettering in the Sanborn title pages has inspired numerous font designs. For example, Letterhead Fonts has a category of Sanborn-inspired typefaces. You might notice that we use their Dreadnought font for many logos in The Steampunk Explorer City Guides. We used the Springfield font for section pages in the World of Steampunk exhibition.

Other City Guide logos use Allegheny, one of four Sanborn-inspired fonts designed by Pilaster Davy. The others are Galveston, Spartanburg, and Providence. These fonts are 100% free for personal and commercial use, but the designer appreciates a donation if they're used for commercial purposes.

City Guides

Spencer & Sons Co., a type foundry specializing in vintage designs, borrowed from Sanborn in its Insurance Maps font. Its fonts are available from Creative Market, a marketplace for independent designers.

Dragonfly from Art And Sign Unlimited is another Sanborn-inspired font.

Sanborn vector elements

G7, another seller on Creative Market, has a series of Sanborn-inspired vector design elements. They are rendered cleanly as vector graphics that can be edited in Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw or other graphics programs. Given the fine detail, they would tend to work best in print projects.

See the gallery below for more examples of Sanborn title pages.

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