Special Collections acquires Allentown atlas

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Allentown Sanborn Map

“Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time…”

Allentown, Billy Joel, 1982
Allentown lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

The ubiquity of modern maps depicting roads and businesses, provided by companies like Google and Apple, conceals a long history of commercial map making. While these digital technology companies are driving advances in mapping and the aggregation of local business data today, it was the fire insurance business that supplied similar information in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, the Sanborn Map Company was the most well-known fire insurance map maker, generating comprehensive maps for populous cities across the country including Bethlehem and Allentown, Pennsylvania. These maps were designed to be used by local insurers in determining the risk of destruction of buildings. What makes the Sanborn maps stand out from other contemporary geographic works are the complex symbols and color coding system used to describe building size, height, function, owners, safety features, and materials.

While digital maps can be easily updated every time a business opens, changes location, or closes, physical maps distributed across the country pose a more difficult problem. The early 20th century solution to this problem was to send out updates and corrections in the form of individually cut and printed pieces of papers designed to be pasted over the original map. While Lehigh’s copy of the Allentown Sanborn Map was first printed in 1911, it features twenty years’ worth of pasted-on additions. The information in this copy is now frozen in time in 1930, providing a unique snapshot of Allentown as interpreted by the insurance business.

Lehigh Special Collections already holds an 1890s Sanborn map of Bethlehem and recently acquired the 1911-1930 Sanborn map of Allentown. The highly detailed nature of this Allentown map provides a glimpse into the urban history of the third most populous city in Pennsylvania. This acquisition will make a valuable addition to Lehigh’s collection and the numerous classes and students learning about urban development and renewal. This new resource will be available for walk-in use in the Special Collections reading room, Linderman 341, through May 18 and available upon request after this date. We encourage anyone interested in local history or urban development to stop by and take a look.