Where there’s smoke, there’s fire insurance maps

Prior to this week, I had never cataloged maps or atlases. My favorite thing about being a cataloger is learning new things — unfamiliar subject matter, but also how resources differ, and why those differences matter. Cartographic materials contrast greatly with the books and periodicals I normally encounter on the job. As a child, I was fascinated with maps and plans; sometimes I would draw maps of imaginary places, or cross-sections of fantastic buildings and caves. As an adult, however, I did not pursue cartography, geography, architecture, or any of the other professions that involve graphical representations of our natural and built environments. As a cataloger, I work with symbolic representations of primarily textual materials, so I faced a learning curve in cataloging Sanborn maps.

The Library of Congress maintains the world’s largest Sanborn Map Collection, which includes “some fifty thousand editions of fire insurance maps comprising an estimated seven hundred thousand individual sheets.” I recommend you read the linked essay, which is more interesting than I expected it to be, and provides a depth of context that’s not possible here, even if I knew the topic well.

Insurance maps of Des Moines, Iowa. New York: Sanborn Map Company, c1920.

Insurance maps of Des Moines, Iowa. New York: Sanborn Map Company, c1920. (Gift of Jerry J. Jennett, June 2016.)

One day I was hard at work, minding my own business, when along came three big books. You could have heard a pin drop: these bad boys are just over two feet square, and heavy. I ended up describing them as “1 atlas in 3 loose-leaf volumes (ca. 310 sheets).” In other words, it’s a huge map of Des Moines divided into a grid on about 310 sheets. If you’ve used road maps, then you know the basic format — once the map is too big to fold, it gets broken up. Breaking up these maps introduces the need for indices and “key maps,” without which the user would be lost.



V. 1 KEY MAP (DETAIL). Insurance maps of Des Moines, Iowa. New York: Sanborn Map Company, c1920.

Above you see a small portion of the key map (scale: 1:12,000). Each numbered shape corresponds to one of about 310 “sheets” (scale: 1:600 or sometimes 1:1,200). As we’ll see further on, the 1:600 scale sheets are rich in details that the fire insurance companies valued.

Confusingly, Sanborn “sheets” are printed on both sides of the leaves (at least in this format). It’s tempting to think of these “sheets” as the pages of a folio, but the similarities are superficial. The distinction is a subtle one that I have struggled to describe. Documents have different structures; consulting a reference work is very different from reading a linear, unidirectional text. The Sanborn atlases are graphical reference works for a very particular audience. Numbered sequences — whether of pages, leaves, or other elements — are a feature of resource types that are in other ways dissimilar. Looking at our three-volume map of Des Moines, I can see why some owners would choose to disassemble it (or not acquire the whole set). It’s not surprising that the Library of Congress collection includes a great many “sheet maps” that are not bound into loose-leaf volumes like ours.


A TYPICAL SHEET (DETAIL). Insurance maps of Des Moines. New York: Sanborn Map Company, c1920.

Here we have a city block represented in a specialized manner. Notable are (1) the nature of the details, and (2) the evidence of revision.

(1) Annotations like “fire proof construction” and “paints & oils” were obviously of interest to the fire insurance companies that bought these maps. What is not clear from this closeup is that the buildings are color-coded: a brick building is shown in pink, a stone building in blue, etc. The insurance companies were also very interested in doors, windows, elevators, and certain other features; you’d need the key to understand the relevant symbols. Not shown above: notes on building security. Important buildings had one or more night watchmen who were noted on the map. Regular patrols might be tracked with watchclocks; “approved clock” is a favorable map note, “no clock” is a bad one indicating that the watchman could muck up his route or skip patrols altogether.

(2) Look closely — see where littler pieces of paper were pasted over the original sheets? These maps were originally issued in 1920, but they were revised many times. Sanborn employees would revise your maps and note the changes in a log. Sometimes they removed whole sheets and replaced them with new ones. An index might get an addendum, or it might be completely pasted over with a new one. The big changes are not mysterious — they are labelled or logged. The little changes are impossible to nail down. Did a Sanborn representative do them?… All I know is that our copies were altered at least twice a year, 1934 through 1937. The sheer number of little paste-overs is mind-boggling!

You can see these books at Special Collections and University Archives, ISU Library. Here they are in the online catalog. 



Rare Book Highlights: Like a Boss

Clavius, Christoph. Gnomonices libri octo. Rome, 1581.

In 1581, Christopher Clavius, a German Jesuit mathematician and astronomer, published what has been called the most comprehensive work on sundials of the period, Gnomonices libri octo. Clavius is most famous for his involvement in the development of the Gregorian calendar, which is the modern Western calendar in use today. The work is full of impressive tables and diagrams, but what I really want to focus on is the binding of the particular copy in our collection.

Cover of book in light-colored leather with metal pieces in the corners

Cover of Clavius’ Gnomonices Libri Octo

Our copy of Gnomonices is a first edition, published in 1581. Books printed at that early date, and continuing until the 19th century, were typically sold unbound. That means that the book was sold as a block of pages sewn together and covered in plain paper covers or boards, and the purchaser would take the book to a bookbinder to have a custom binding created for it. Often purchasers would have all the books in his library bound in the same style. That means that copies of early books could have vastly different types of binding. Our copy of Gnomonices is interesting because it has a fairly elegant binding with lots of hardware.

Close up of hole in leather showing wooden board underneath

Close up of hole in leather showing wooden board underneath (click for larger image)

Geometrical patterns stamped onto leather

Close up of blind tooling (click for larger image)

The binding material is blind-tooled pigskin over wooden boards. Let’s break that down. Pigskin is a type of tanned leather that was popular in Germanic and Scandinavian countries, made from pigs, as the name suggests. Tooling refers to the designs pressed into the leather made with metal hand-tools. If you are crafty, you might have done some leather tooling yourself. Blind-tooled simply means that the impressions are made directly into the leather, making an impression on the surface. Alternatively, the binding could have gold tooling, in which gold leaf is applied to the surface of the leather, leaving a gold pattern on the surface of the leather.

The binding also features a number of metal objects. Attached to the corners are bosses, metal knobs that slightly elevate the book from the table surface, protecting the leather from wear. These were features of medieval bookbinding, but they were also used later as decorative features. The book also shows evidence of clasps, which have come off the book over the years.

Metal corner on edge of book featuring an upraised knob in center

Close-up of boss

Clasps were another medieval bookbinding feature and were designed to protect the integrity of the binding, keeping the book closed during movement and thus easing the strain on the joints, where the boards were attached to the block of pages. These books were large, heavy objects!

Close-up of clasp remains

Close-up of clasp remains

What does it mean that this book was bound the way it was? By the 16th century the use of bosses and clasps were fading away as books were becoming more affordable through Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the spread of the printing press throughout Europe. Their use in this case then is primarily decorative. The bosses and stamps, as well as the tooled leather, suggest that this was the purchase of a particularly wealthy individual or institution. Was it bound as it was to join an illustrious library of many generations containing medieval manuscripts? Was it the prized possession of an individual and bound to enhance the prestige of the owner? What do you think?

Rare Book Highlights: Cobbett’s Corn

Cobbett, William. A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn. London: W. Cobbett, 1828.

What do you think of when you think of Iowa?

Let me guess. Corn.

Cobbett's Corn title page, printed on paper made from corn husks, 1828.

Cobbett’s Corn title page, printed on paper made from corn husks, 1828.

That is why I love to pull out Cobbett’s Corn when people come to ISU’s Special Collections and University Archives. Not only is it a rare book focused on corn, but its first two leaves are actually printed on paper made from corn husks to demonstrate the usefulness of the plant.

William Cobbett was a lively writer with strong opinions. In his “Introduction” to the book, he explains that in the book he will

“show, what a blessing this plant will be to the English labourer, and how it will and must drive the accursed soul-degrading potatoe out of that land, into which it never ought to have come” (8).

Tell us how you really feel, Cobbett!

William Cobbett, portrait in oils, possibly by George Cooke, about 1831. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Cobbett’s animated writing style was matched by a spirited personality, which showed itself in his campaigns against corruption and fiery journalism that had a tendency to run afoul of the authorities. Born in 1763 in Farnham, Surrey, to a farmer and innkeeper, he joined the army at the age of 21, which took him to New Brunswick in Canada. After his return to England and leaving the army, he accused several of his former officers with corruption. Fearing retribution, he fled to France, but, as the country was in the midst of revolution, he soon left for America, settling in Philadelphia in 1792. There, he began his career in political journalism, returning to England in 1800 after losing a lawsuit for libel brought against him by the physician Dr. Benjamin Rush. He continued his political journalism in England, founding the Political Register in 1802, which he published until his death in 1835. He spent two years in prison (1810-1812) and paid a hefty fine for criticizing the flogging of a militiaman who had protested against unfair paycuts. Through his paper, he was an advocate for the poor and a proponent of Parliamentary reform. In the midst of social unrest, the government repressed dissent, which sent Cobbett fleeing once again to the United States in 1817, where he lived and continued to publish the Register for two years before returning to England.

Cobbett’s periods in North America exposed him to the maize that is native here. In fact, it was while serving in the army in New Brunswick that he first experienced “Indian corn” and “made many meals upon ears of corn in their green state” (14). Until this time, he writes,

“I used to be greatly puzzled by that text of Scripture (St. Matthew, chap. xii., ver. 1,) which told me that, ‘at that time Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the corn: and his disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat'” (14).

He then goes on (what I found to be) an entertaining digression for several pages of what he calls the “Scriptural history of the corn” (20), which includes little jabs at the corruption of the Church in England.

Engraving of a corn plant.

Plate 1 from Cobbett’s Corn, 1828.

The corn he suggests growing in England is a particular variety that his son discovered in France. It is a smaller variety that does not require long periods of heat to ripen, thus making it appropriate for England’s shorter, wetter summers.

Cobbett’s Corn is a less known book. He is better known for Rural Rides, in which he describes horseback rides through the country landscapes of Southeast England and the Midlands and shares his views on social reform. But Cobbett’s Corn is worth a look, as well. The bibliographer Morris L. Pearl wrote, “In this most entertainingly written treatise Cobbett skilfully blended agricultural and political advice with fascinating reminiscences. Contemptuous of his critics and enemies, he waxed lyrical at the prospect of English farm-labourers seeing ‘this beautiful crop growing in all their gardens…instead of the infamous Potato'” (Pearl, William Cobbett (1953), no. 154).


“The world’s first and longest-running scientific periodical”

Phil Trans tp

The title page of the copy held by ISU Library Special Collections and archives.

A patron has been examining our 350-year-old copies of the first issues of Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, which gives me something interesting to blog about. The patron is Marcia Prior-Miller, an Associate Professor Emeritus from the ISU Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. I met Marcia when she visited Special Collections a year or so ago, and I enjoyed talking to her about her research and writing. Now she’s back, and working on a book chapter. Its topic is the historical emergence of magazine and journal publishing. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London is one of the four earliest examples of magazines or journals; the other three publications are in German, Italian, and French, and we won’t address them here.

The first issue of Philosophical transactions […] contains ten entries on various scientific and technical topics. Some are essay-length; others are just paragraphs. None have illustrations, charts, or graphs. Nor are there bibliographical references or citations as we know them, although in some cases titles and names are provided. Henry Oldenburg seems to have edited the whole, drawing on an array of publications and correspondence. I find it to be interesting reading; the prose style is more colorful and lively than the scientific writing of our time.

Monstrous calf

Again, the first issue. Note that someone underlined dozens of words in ink that has turned brown with age. Perhaps it is iron gall ink.

Issue number two has pages numbered 17-32, i.e. it takes up where issue number one left off. To this day, journals (as opposed to magazines) commonly have “continuous paging throughout a volume.” Notably, volume two of Philosophical transactions […] does not begin with a fresh page one; rather, after some unnumbered pages, it carries on from p. 409. (Pardon me for noting these details. I am a librarian and a cataloger, so I can’t help but notice them!)

Issue two also feature the title’s first illustrations. They are beautifully done on a leaf that folds out. These figures are associated with the article (?) on pages 21-26 concerning “a way of producing Wind by the fall of Water.”

Phil Trans ill

Visit us here in special collections if you’d like to see our extensive collection of the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of LondonYou can also view and download scans of individual issues (here, and I imagine elsewhere).

(My blog post’s title is borrowed from an exhibition catalog called Philosophical transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society (1665-2015). The catalog is an excellent resource in itself. You can view or download a PDF of it here.)

Rare Book Highlights: Micrographia

Illustration of Hooke's microscope, from Micrographia.

Illustration of Hooke’s microscope, from Micrographia.

Last month, I highlighted Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants, published in 1682, in which an English physician turned his microscope to the world of plants. This month, I am going backwards–not too far, only about 20 years–to the book that inspired Grew’s microscopic research. That book is Robert Hooke‘s Micrographia, published in 1665.

Micrographia was the first book to delve deep into microscopic observations, and its publication reached far and wide. Isaac Newton read it, and Hooke’s observations of light inspired his experiments in Book 2 of Opticks. The great 17th century London diarist Samuel Pepys writes that he sat up reading it till 2 am, and called it “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.” The entry for the book in The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine bibliography states that the book “had an impact rivalling that of Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius,” Galileo’s 1610 pamphlet describing his telescopic observations of the Moon and four moons of Jupiter (Norman 1092).

Looking at its plates, you can see why. The book is particularly famous for its large, and perhaps alarming, illustrations of the flea and louse (above).

Illustration of cork under magnification, from Hooke's Micrographia

Illustration of cork under magnification, from Hooke’s Micrographia.

The book is noted for its first use of the word cells in describing the structure of cork, although Hooke did not understand the nature of what biologists later termed cells in the structure of plants and animals. Hooke made other observations published in the book that contributed to or are associated with other scientific theories. His observation of charcoal, for instance, includes his theories on combustion, an area of scientific work in which three other men (Robert Boyle, Richard Lower, and John Mayow) were actively engaged at the same time. Hooke’s observations of insects formed the first studies of insect anatomy.

Hooke began his observations with inanimate objects, including various types of cloth, the point of a needle, and the edge of a razor, which he discovered to be “a rough surface of a very considerable bredth from side to side, the narrowest part not seeming thinner then the back of a pretty thick Knife” (4). [Note that spelling peculiarities in quotations here and below are from the original work and indicate variations in spelling from the time period.] From there, he moved on to plants and to animals, specifically insects.

I was particularly struck by his observations of the sting of a bee, which he notes,”seems to be a weapon of offence, and is as great an Instance, that Nature did realy intend revenge as any” (163). He describes its structure as consisting of a sheath and a sword. The sheath he describes as being:

“arm’d moreover neer the top with several crooks or forks (pqrst) on one side, and (pqrstu) on the other, each of which seem’d like so many Thorns growing on a briar, or rather like so many Cat’s Claws; for the crooks themselves seem’d to be little sharp transparent points or claws, growing out of little protuberancies on the side of the sheath, which, by observing the Figure diligently, is easie enough to be perceiv’d; and from several particulars, I suppose the Animal has a power of displaying them, and shutting them in again as it pleases, as a Cat does its claws, or as an Adder or Viper can its teeth or fangs” (163-4).

Stop by Special Collections and University Archives to read more of Hooke’s observations and view the impressive folding plates. We hope to see you soon!

Instruction in the Archives!

On Monday, a class from the Iowa State University Office of Precollegiate Programs for Talented and Gifted (OPPTAG) visited Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). The course was titled “Cook Your Way Through U.S. History.” In the SCUA classroom, I demonstrated how to find SCUA materials on their topic (cookbooks) and reviewed procedures and handling guidelines in our reading room. Amy Bishop, Rare Books and Manuscripts Archivist, reviewed different cookbooks from Rare Books and recipes from our Manuscript Collections & University Archives and provided students with context on the collections and books.

OPPTAG students viewing cookbook from Rare Book Collection

OPPTAG students viewing cookbook from Rare Book Collection

The students then came into our reading room and looked for historic recipes they plan to cook this week. You should come into our reading room too and check out our cool cookbooks! We’re open Monday-Friday from 10-4! You can also check out some selected cookbooks online in the Library’s Digital Collections.

Rare Book Highlights: Mapping the terra incognita of plants

By which Your Majesty will find, That there are Terrae Incognitae in Philosophy, as well as Geography. And for so much, as lies here, it comes to pass, I know not how, even in this Inquisitive Age, That I am the first, who have given a Map of the Country.

From the Nehemiah Grew’s dedication to King Charles II in The Anatomy of Plants.

“…there are Terrae Incognitae in Philosophy, as well as Geography. And for so much, as lies here, it comes to pass, I know not how, even in this Inquisitive Age, That I am the first, who have given a Map of the Country.”

So wrote Nehemiah Grew in The Anatomy of Plants, published in 1682, in his dedication “To His Most Sacred Majesty Charles II, King of Great Britain, &c.” Looking at the beautiful and abstract plates illustrating the inner structure of plants, I sometimes feel I am peeking into a whole separate world, which is why Grew’s Anatomy of Plants (call number QK41 G869ap) is one of my favorite books in our collections.

Plate from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants illustrating a sumach branch under magnification.

Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) was an English physician, son of the English nonconformist minister Obadiah Grew, whose oppositional religious and political views (he was a Parliamentarian during the English Civil War) frequently brought him into conflict with the authorities. Nehemiah, unlike his father, was not politically active, and, in fact, he was a member of the Royal Society, a scientific society that had been granted a royal charter by King Charles II in 1662.

Illustrations of the roots of the primrose, wood-sorrel, devil's bitt, tuberous iris, dandelion, dragon plant, and spring crocus.

Illustrations of various roots in Grew’s Anatomy of Plants.

Grew is famous for being among the first naturalists to use the microscope to study plant morphology. He was also believed that plants resembled animals in having organs that each had an internal function, and throughout the book he devotes chapters to the use of each of the parts of the plants that he identifies. This correspondence between animals and plants can be seen in his noted observations of the flower parts that he suggested correspond to male and female sexual organs.

Plate of St. Johns wort flower under magnification from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants.

Stop by Special Collections and University Archives to explore more of Grew’s “mappings” of the inner world of plants.

Ex libris Charles Atwood Kofoid

Bookplate, reads "Ex-libris Charles Atwood Kofoid" in Geographische Geschichte des Menschen.

Bookplate, reads “Ex-libris Charles Atwood Kofoid” in Geographische Geschichte des Menschen.

Occasionally we come across a book with an interesting provenance, or history of ownership, that we didn’t know we had. Recently our reference specialist came upon a book in our collections with the bookplates of Charles Atwood Kofoid. A quick Google search informed her that Kofoid was an American zoologist of some note.

Kofoid (1865-1947) was a zoologist at University of California, Berkeley. He classified many new species of marine protozoans, and he was an early supporter of the creation of a marine station in La Jolla, California, first called the Marine Biological Association of San Diego, which later became Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He served as the assistant director at Scripps from 1903-1923. His papers are held at University of California, San Diego and the Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley. For photographs of Kofoid, see UC San Diego’s digital collection.

The title page and bookplate of Geographische Geschichte des Menschen.

The title page and bookplate of Geographische Geschichte des Menschen.

And the book? It is a copy of Geographische Geschichte des Menschen, und der allgemein verbreiteten vierfüssigen thiere : nebst einer hieher gehörigen zoologischen weltcharte by Eberhardt August Wilhelm von Zimmermann, published in Leipzig, Germany, in 1778 (call number: QL711 Z65g). It is a work of zoogeography, a field that studies the geographical distribution of animals.  Zimmerman was a German geographer and zoologist who traveled widely throughout Europe and was one of the first to publish books in this field.

Now comes the question, how do we happen to have this particular book in our collections? While we don’t have detailed records of all our acquisitions, a clue comes from the biography of Kofoid. He was born in Iowa’s neighboring state of Illinois, and worked for a number of years (1897-1903) as superintendent of the Illinois River Biological Station. Following that, in 1904-1905, he traveled with Alexander Agassiz on the Albatross Expedition as a planktonologist. Perhaps before his travels, he sold off some of his books, and this title made its way into the collections of Iowa State University Library.

Our unique copy of Guide to the Mushrooms

Cole, Emma L. Taylor. Guide to the Mushrooms. C.K. Reed, 1910.

ISU Parks Library Special Collections and Archives has a unique copy of this book: it was “extra-illustrated” by a previous owner. The customization of books has a long and varied history, and was sometimes taken to surprising extremes, with little or no regard for preserving books (even rare or costly ones) as issued. The great libraries of the world have collections of extra-illustrated and “Grangerized” books created by noteworthy and talented persons.

In the case of our Guide to the Mushrooms, the extra illustrations are 117 amateur watercolors of most or all of the mushroom species covered by the book. About 150 additional pages have been glued between the original 206 pages. The extra-illustrator also augmented the text by adding species entries, expanding the indices, and so on.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Here, the extra-illustrator added flair to a previously blank space.


Figure 2

Figure 2. The book’s front paste-down endpaper.

We aren’t completely sure who extra-illustrated this book, but the name, address, and upper-right note appear to be in the same hand, so maybe Mark M. Maycock was the artist. The penciled inscriptions were probably made by a bookseller, perhaps the same one who affixed the little label.

All of these elements are provenance evidence — copy-specific information about a book’s origin, history, and owners. The provenance of rare and/or valuable books is of great importance; in other cases, the information may be of interest to a select few people (family, scholars, librarians, or archivists).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Note the page numbering at top left and right.

The extra-illustrator glued in about 150 pages (about 75 leaves of paper) and wanted them to have numbers, too. His or her solution is evident above (FIG. 3): the sequence is 112, 112-1, 112-2, 113, and so on. If these details seem less than noteworthy, well, perhaps they are in this case. The fine points of most books’ typography, construction, and condition are of little to no concern; but, as with provenance evidence, precise physical description of the most important books is greatly appreciated by scholars and collectors. Their work sometimes relies on it — for example, to determine the authenticity or completeness of a copy, or to establish the correct or definitive version of a text.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Another scan from the book, just for the fun of it.

In-recataloging this book, I took special care to make notes about what makes ISU’s copy unusual. We’ll never find out who is interested in such things if we don’t describe them! Here’s a link to the book in our library catalog. If you want to see ISU’s extra-illustrated copy of Guide to the Mushrooms, visit us at the Parks Library Special Collections and Archives. If you want to see the book as issued, a complete scan is available online.

Thanks for coloring with us!

It’s been quite the week of coloring! We’ve enjoyed sharing our collections with you, and we hope you’ve enjoyed coloring them. Here is the final coloring page of the week. Another from Novo teatro di machine et edificii.

Vittorio Zonca’s Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii… Call number: TJ144 .Z75n

Vittorio Zonca’s Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii… Call number: TJ144 .Z75n

Click here to download and print this image.

Share what you have colored by tagging #ColorOurCollections #ISU_Archives