Fire Insurance Plans Print Series

When I was an undergraduate student at Brock University, the focus of my fourth year studies was the relationships between canals and their surrounding communities. Particularly the development of industrial sites alongside canals, and the results of new industrial activity that have now become the foundations of many local sites in the city.

19th century fire insurance plans were highly specialized and very valuable to fire insurance underwriters for understanding the physical characteristics and occupancy type of structures, espescially in urban areas where conflagration was a major risk to life and work in the city (see Great Fire of  Toronto, 1904). Yikes!

Throughout my research, I would consistently and constantly return to stare at the – almost magical – fire insurance plans held in collections at both the Special Collections at Brock University and here at the St. Catharines Museum. The fire insurance plans were extremely valuable for answering my questions surrounding historic development around a transportation route – and most importantly, it answered my questions in a visual way. It was a tangible reflection of the ideas that I and other local historians have considered.

Poster Merritton copy
A slice of the Merritton fire insurance plan print, c. 1919, that shows the intense concentration of industrial activity alongside the Second Welland Canal. STCM 1981.35.1. Copyright St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

The plans continue to remain an important resource in my work as a public historian at the Museum today. I often find myself considering research questions by first checking the city’s business directories (spanning the last 150 years), and the fire insurance plans. They aren’t perfect – they are static and only cover certain geography – but the visuals are priceless.

And that’s why we just couldn’t keep these plans to ourselves.

Sarah, from Craft Arts Market on St. Paul Street made me think of the maps in a new way: as art. Aside from the history that can be interpreted from the plans, they are full of design and colour. That’s why we are happy to present four pages of some of the fire insurance plans in partnership with Craft Arts Market for you to take home and enjoy.

The plans are particularly artistic because underwriters used colours to code different buildings. For example: pink was brick, and yellow was wood. Blue and grey would also sometimes denote the use of buildings as outbuildings or factories. Blue dots sprinkle the plans to denote the locations of fire hydrants (did you like that pun?). Together the hand-drawn-hand-painted colours, lines, and text make for some beautiful and historical art.

Poster Port Dalhousie copy
A partial print of a the fire insurance plan from 1929 Port Dalhousie, STCM 2002.100.1. The prints have been digitally enhanced and are printed on fine paper. Copyright St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

There are four prints available in this limited run of our Fire Insurance Plan series:

  • The front page of Fire Insurance Plan for St. Catharines, c. 1901-1906,
    STCM 1972.31.1.2
  • Downtown close-up of St. Paul Street, c. 1901-1906, STCM 1972.31.1.7
  • Merritton, c. 1919, STCM 1981.35.1
  • Port Dalhousie, c. 1929, STCM 2002.100.1

Prints are available at the Museum’s gift shop Merritt’s Mercantile, and at Craft Arts Market. They are $20.00 each.

To obtain your copy of the plan print series, you can visit us here at the Merritt’s Mercantile Gift Shop at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre, open daily from 9am-5pm, or you can pick up your copy at the Craft Arts Market, located at 160 St. Paul Street, open 9am-5pm, Monday-Saturday (closed Sunday).

We hope you enjoy the prints as much as we do!

The Fire Insurance Plan series is presented by the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre in partnership with Craft Arts Market. 

Adrian Petry is a public historian and Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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