Keeping History Column
By Georgen Gilliam Charnes
Caption: A detail from the 1909 Sanborn map, showing downtown shops.
Did you know there was a billiard hall upstairs on Main Street in October 1887? That’s where Tonkin Antiques is now, at the corner of Federal and Main Streets. Did you know that “moving pictures” were shown a few doors down in August 1909? I didn’t know either, until I started looking at the Sanborn maps.
The Sanborn maps are drawings of the entire town of Nantucket, compiled in 1887, 1892, 1898, 1904, 1909, and 1924. Drawn at fifty feet to an inch, each building is shown in clear outline, including every wart and window, outbuilding and alley. Street widths and locations of underground water pipes are also noted, as well as cisterns and fuel-storage tanks. The maps were designed by surveyor D. A. Sanborn to assist fire-insurance agents, who needed to determine how much buildings were at risk before they were insured, hence the locations of water sources and exits. More than 12,000 cities and towns were the subject of Sanborn maps, and we’re fortunate that Nantucket was one of them.
The maps also offer a picture of life in Nantucket, as each building’s use is labeled. Downtown looked like an active place in 1887, with three billiard or pool halls, several barbershops, and shops on Centre Street selling sweets. Each building features an abbreviated descriptions, such as “Milly & fancy” (35 Main 1887) for a milliner or “fancy goods” store; “Stationery &c, Banquet Hall 2d” (7 Centre, 1887, 1909); or just “D” for dwelling. There was a store labeled “Turkish bazaar” on Centre Street for the entire run of the maps between 1887 and 1909. The Sanborn maps also track changes in the use of a building. For instance, the property now occupied by the Nantucket Bank was recorded as a YWCA in August 1909. The Nobby Shop was a flour and grain company and a print store in 1887, 1892, and 1898, and a “Chinese laundry” and grocery in 1904; in 1909 the grocery had become a lunchroom.
The maps have proven to be invaluable for researching the history of individual houses. The only disappointment is that they are limited to “in-town” houses, either in Nantucket town or Siasconset, a small area by today’s standards. Unfortunately, we can’t put the Sanborn maps on the website, since it’s copyrighted material, but if you’re interested in seeing a footprint of buildings in Nantucket, please feel welcome to visit.
Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004.