Robert M. Shea, CPCU - March 2014
Everyone loves a good story, and the accepted narrative of modern literature on American fire marks contains one or more of the following ideas to enliven the story:
- The volunteer fire company would not fight a fire unless there was a fire mark on the burning building.
- A fire mark was a guarantee that the first volunteer fire company to fight the fire would receive a reward from the insurance company whose fire mark was on the burning building.
- The use of fire marks diminished because of the institution of paid municipal fire departments.
Like most stories, the above points are more fiction than fact - more hype than history. What are the facts, and what was the purpose of fire marks in America?
Firemarks in England and America
The popular misconception is that both the American volunteer fire companies and the fire brigades organized by the English insurance companies would only extinguish a fire on a house displaying the fire mark of the company who employed them, and further, they would offer no assistance to a burning house displaying the fire mark of another company, let alone a house without a fire mark.
Starting in the late 1600’s English insurance companies maintained their own fire brigades manned by watermen and porters recruited from London’s Themes riverfront, who generally were paid when they turned out for fires. The insurance company private fire brigades were financed for a number of reasons: there was no organized firefighting at the time; policyholders would feel more secure; fire brigades would minimize losses to the company; and the uniforms and fire engines of the brigades would advertise the insurer.
Because early London’s streets and alleys were not officially named and houses were not numbered, the custom was for each insurer to identify the property they insured by attaching a lead badge, most often with a stamped policy number, bearing the emblem of the company. In this way the property was marked for company officials, watermen and porters. The term “fire mark” was used to describe this badge. Fire marks were intended to be concurrent with the insurance and were removed when the policy was cancelled or not renewed.
While it is generally true that the English private fire brigades would only fight fires on houses that displayed their company’s fire mark, this was not the case for all companies. For example, Article 12 of the 1717 Westminster Fire Office, who issued a fire mark, provided that their brigade would “repair” to all fires. Early records show that watermen and porters belonging to one company assisted those of another company, and were compensated for their efforts by the company whose fire mark was on the property. In many cases, houses in London would have multiple fire marks because the original insurer did not remove their fire mark when the policy lapsed and the new insurer put theirs up. There was also a separate mark for insurance on the contents. What with officially named streets, changes of ownership of the building and changes of tenants, it’s doubtful that fire marks maintained over an extended period their original intent to more exactly locate the risk and be a guide for the private fire brigades.
In 1809, the newly organized Albion Fire and Life Insurance Company advertised that it would not issue a fire mark and its private fire brigade would offer assistance to anyone who needed it. Up until 1866, when the public Metropolitan Fire Brigade was organized, insurance companies financed almost all fire protection in London and a great deal in other cities throughout England.
While the English fire insurance companies preceded and organized the firefighting brigades, the American experience was quite different. The American volunteer fire companies operated before the first fire insurance company was organized and acted independently of any insurance company. In 1736 Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire Company, America’s first volunteer fire company. Later Franklin proposed organizing an insurance company to the members of the by then eight volunteer fire companies. The new insurance company, “The Philadelphia Contribution-ship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire” formed in 1752, used London’s “Amicable Contributors for Insuring from Loss by Fire” as a model for its organization, incorporating some of its articles in the Contributionship’s Deed of Settlement. Since most of the members of the new insurance company were already firemen, there was no need for the Contributionship to organize its own fire company as did its London model. However, as it was the practice of English insurers to identify insured property with a fire mark, the Contributionship adopted this practice.
The fire mark selected was the symbol of four lead clasped hands mounted on a wood board. The clasped hands symbolized mutual support and were also known as a four-handed fireman’s carry, perhaps recalling that firemen were among its founders.
Almost admitting that the insurance company was an outgrowth of the fire fighting companies, Article 15 of the Deed of Settlement stipulated that the company directors were to attend all “alarms of fire” to determine how best to serve the company and the public. Presumably, for properties with fire marks, all policyholders, especially firemen policyholders, would eagerly join to fight the fire and, at the same time, not cause more damage that was necessary to extinguish the fire. Since the Contributionship was a mutual company, their efforts would result in a smaller loss for all the policyholders to proportionally share.
The importance of this idea can be seen in the following quote from a 1929 publication of the Contributionship that points out that the Directors thought a fire mark would influence the actions of the firefighters to minimize damage to property:
So important was the use of this badge considered, that in 1755, a fire having damage the house of Edward Shippen, which had no badge put up, the minutes record that “The Directors observing that much of the Damage was done thro’ Indiscretion, which they think might have been prevented had it appear’d by the Badge being placed up to Notify that the House was so immediately under their Care; to prevent the like Mischeif for the Future; it is now Ordered, that the Clerk shall go round and Examine who have not yet put up their Badges; and inform those, that they are requested to fix them, immediately as the Major part of the Contributors have done.”
The second Philadelphia insurer, “The Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire,” was formed in 1784 by a group of dissident Contributionship policyholders. In 1781 the Contributionship voted not to insure houses with trees in front of them, and any member having trees would forfeit their insurance. The new company copied almost verbatim the Contributionship’s Deed of Settlement and also made a fire mark a requirement of coverage. The mark selected for its symbol by the former subscribers who owned tree shaded property was a tree in full leaf on a wooden board and became known as the Green Tree.
The third Philadelphia insurer, the “Insurance Company of North America” (INA), organized in 1792, began writing fire insurance in 1794, and made the purchase of a fire mark optional. While almost all policyholders paid extra for a “badge,“ or fire mark, not all did.
Two factors may have influenced the Insurance Company of North America to minimize the need for a fire mark. First, there were at that time in Philadelphia about 24 volunteer fire companies available to fight fires. Second, the INA, already a profitable joint-stock marine underwriter with $600,000 capital, would also insure household contents and merchandise in leased stores and warehouses within ten miles of the city. Insurance was a business to make a profit for the shareholders, not the policyholders. Fire marks were an anachronism and would be supplied to the insured at cost.
Even though the early Philadelphia insurers from 1752 to about 1800 issued fire marks, unlike the English, they did not organize their own fire companies or acquire their own fire engines.
No Fire Mark, No Firefighting Company
The American volunteers fought all fires whether or not the property was insured, regardless of which company insured it, let alone have a fire mark.
In Philadelphia fire marks were never required to designate a house as insured so that the firemen would fight the fire or that a reward would be forthcoming if they did. The fire mark indicated that the property was insured, and hopefully the firemen would do as little damage as possible, but mostly, the mark served to advertise the company.
Research shows that it is only in the 20th century that the idea first appears that a volunteer fire company would not fight a fire if there were no fire mark.
By 1925 the idea that volunteer fire companies favored certain insurance companies that displayed fire marks on houses/property was fairly accepted. As early as 1904 George Cuthbert Gillespie wrote of Philadelphia: “The fire companies from the time of the introduction of fire insurance received large contributions towards their maintenance from the fire office, which gave the fire mark a significance considerably removed from that of being merely advertising media for their respective offices.” This idea was repeated in additional articles by Gillespie and adopted by others. By 1918 Robert Shackleton had morphed this idea when he wrote: “…volunteer fire-fighter companies and the insurance companies had affiliations, and that a volunteer company protected or assisted by an insurance company would make an effort at a fire only if the fire-mark of its company were to be seen.” The latter is the earliest reference the author has found that states the American volunteer fire companies would fight a fire only if the property showed the fire mark of the insurance company it was affiliated with.
By 1935 the idea was firmly planted by numerous writers that the volunteer fire companies were either maintained by an insurance company or would only fight a fire if there were a fire mark on the property. Not only did non-insurance writers foster these ideas, but the insurance companies themselves did as well. In 1929 the Franklin Fire Insurance Company in its 100th anniversary history erroneously described that in the early years in Philadelphia each insurance company maintained its own fire company, but as more insurance companies organized more fire companies, it became difficult for each company to recognize its own fire. Each insurance company then adopted its own “house mark” to identify properties it insured. When the fire alarm sounded “…all of the fire companies would respond, but only the company whose house mark appeared on the house in danger fought the flames.”
While the Insurance Company of North America in its 1933 American Fire Marks correctly noted that the American insurance companies did not maintain fire brigades but relied on the volunteer fire companies, it told a different story about the use of the fire mark; “… let the brigades find a burning house barren of a Fire Mark of any description! Then, with a sigh of “False alarm,” they turned back, leaving the discomfited householder to his buckets.” This statement in a 1933 INA publication is rebutted by Regina R. Reynolds of the INA Archives Department who in 1974 wrote that a policyholder could choose not have any mark. Ms. Reynolds’ supports the reality that the volunteers would fight any and all fires.
Both 1938 publications of “Fire Mark” by the American Reserve Insurance Company and an article by insurance agent W. Emmert Swigart state that the volunteers would not fight a fire unless the property had a fire mark. They cite no supporting evidence for these assertions and so appear to be regurgitating the same old untruths for the sake of a good story.
There are no primary sources, in either insurance company or volunteer fire company records, indicating volunteer fire companies would not fight a fire unless the property was insured and had a fire mark. There are also no references to such practices in newspaper accounts of the time. A review of books on general history, fire fighting and insurance published in the 1870’s and 1880’s also do not mention this practice. In a 1983 Fire Mark Circle of the America’s article, Dr. Glenn Holt concluded that, at least for St. Louis, there is no reference to a fire mark influencing the firefighters. A review of records of the Insurance Company of North America by Melissa Hough, former Chief Curator of the CIGNA Museum and Art Collection, confirmed the same conclusion in Philadelphia.
To this day, writers repeat and embellish these stories with the result that readers, while entertained, are misinformed about the early volunteers. The fabricated stories about fire marks and the traction gained only confirm the idea that if you repeat a falsehood enough times, it will be believed. The American volunteer fire service was founded on the principles of public service. It’s unlikely the eighteenth century Philadelphia volunteer fire companies with such mottos as “Assist the needy, protect the weak” (Hibernia No.1), “Judge us by our actions” (Humane No. 13), and “To assist the citizens” (Philadelphia No. 18) would not fight fires on properties without a fire mark. The reality is that fire companies operated in a local area and were organized and existed because of donations from citizens, businesses and even municipal funding. Volunteer fire companies were prominent social organizations and membership was an honor. Having made their case for funding by proclaiming their work in the public interest, it seems unlikely they would disregard any fire that could cause a catastrophe.
Also, in the 150 - year span of fire marks in America only fewer than 300 known insurance companies issued fire marks. Most insurance companies did not issue fire marks. If less than one in a hundred insurance companies issued fire marks, it’s illogical that the volunteers would let properties burn that did not have a fire mark. Had this occurred, the hue and cry of the public and the insurance industry would certainly have been noted.
Fire Marks as "Reward" Signs
Since there was no evidence to support the idea that early American fire insurance companies organized their own firefighting companies, what was the reason for a fire mark? Another reason put forth was that the volunteer company would be guaranteed a reward or payment from the insurance company whose mark was on the building. The idea of a fire mark as a “reward” sign fits nicely with the natural rivalry of the volunteers. Certainly, volunteer fire companies raced each other to be the first to “play” water on a fire; fire literature is replete with the intense rivalry and competition between engine companies. It was, and remains so today, a matter of great status to be the first company at a fire.
This natural rivalry was also fostered by municipalities throughout the country. For example, as early as 1737 Boston made a payment to the first company that arrived at a fire. During the 1800’s numerous cities throughout the United States offered rewards for volunteer fire companies for first water. For example, New Orleans’ “Bucket Ordinance” of January 31, 1807, Article XXX, awarded $50.00, and both Memphis, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina, awarded $25.00. Most cities paid a much lower amount with Joplin Missouri awarding $10.00 and $5.00 for first and second water, the towns of Montpelier and Saint Albans, Vermont, $7.00 and $5.00. Concord, New Hampshire, offered $5.00 to the first of two “tub” machines in town to be the first to arrive at a fire.
That rewards for firefighters were common throughout the country is evidenced by the fact that as late as June 1899 a topic at the Minnesota State Firemen’s Association annual convention was, “Is it conducive to the efficiency of the volunteer departments to offer prizes for the first water on the fire?”
In addition to municipalities paying rewards, so did some insurance companies. First water rewards were offered by fire insurance companies in Boston, Cleveland, Hartford, Trenton, New Jersey, and Germantown Township, which was outside Philadelphia.
However, the fact that in some cities fire companies may have received rewards for first fire water by a municipality or an insurance company, does not establish a direct connection between fire marks and rewards. Where did this fiction come from?
The oldest reference found supporting the fiction of a connection between fire marks and rewards is an article printed on October 22, 1928 in Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, which stated that a fire mark:
signified that the fire fighter would be paid a reward for preservation of the property insured. As a result the insured house became privileged property in the eyes of the volunteers, who outdid each other in racing to be first on the scene, at times, according to some accounts, even passing by burning property which carried no inducement for their services.
Such a statement in a Philadelphia newspaper is hard to believe since the city of Philadelphia had made annual appropriations to the volunteer fire companies starting August 2, 1811 for $1,500, which increased almost yearly to $56,970.50 in 1859. Surely the city fathers would strenuously object to fire companies “passing by a burning property which carried no inducement for their services.” Meeting books and financial ledgers of numerous Philadelphia volunteer engine and hose companies do not contain a single reference to a payment for first water in Philadelphia.
It does not seem credible that the 1928 Philadelphia newspaper article had it right that the fire volunteers were responsible for the adoption of fire marks and that the mark signified that a reward would be forthcoming. There is no evidence that the city of Philadelphia or the fire insurance companies offered rewards to the first fire company to put water on a burning property.
The fact that a small number of insurance companies paid a reward or premium for first water does not prove this practice was universal. The stories of such occurrences in the Franklin Fire Insurance Company’s 1929 One Hundred Years and INA’s 1933 American Fire Marks are pure fiction. However, almost every subsequent article on fire marks has repeated the idea of fire marks as reward signs. The reality is that while the cash books of a number of Philadelphia volunteer fire companies list irregular annual donations from the American Fire Insurance Company, the Franklin Fire Insurance Company and the Philadelphia Contributionship, there is no reference to payments being made for particular fires.
The practice of fire insurance companies making payments for first water was infrequent and varied by insurer, city and time period. The idea that fire marks guaranteed a reward is at variance with the evidence and puts a whole different spin on what actually occurred. It certainly does not reflect the public-spirited volunteers throughout America, who purchased their own equipment and hazarded their lives to protect the public. Such famous volunteers as Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and countless others, would certainly take exception that their efforts were motivated by rewards.
Firemen's Insurance Companies
Firemen’s insurance companies are an interesting American phenomenon with over thirty-fire such companies organized to sell fire insurance throughout the country. Firemen organized insurance companies add another confusing element to the triangle of fire mark, fire insurance company and volunteer fire company.
Whereas the English insurers organized their own private firefighting brigades, in many large American cities independent fire companies organized their own insurance companies. Not all these insurance companies issued fire marks, but of those that did, most issued a large cast iron mark. The large cast iron mark with its depiction of a fire engine or a fireplug was a recognizable advertisement for the insurance company organized by the volunteers. It is not hard to imagine that these firemen’s insurance companies would influence a policyholder to put a fire mark on his property, especially one with a fire engine or fireplug on it. George Gillespie suggests this is why there are over 40,000 Fire Association fire marks in Philadelphia. With the fire mark on their property, the insurance company would get free advertising, and the insured would feel that the firefighters would give an extra effort to protect the property insured in their own company. It is certainly conceivable to think that the firemen’s insurance companies would encourage such thinking - a “win-win” situation.
In the1937 history of the Firemen’s Insurance Company of Washington and Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, John Clagett Proctor writes, “Prior to the introduction of the steam engine in 1857, and the paid fire department, it was the universal custom to issue such badges [fire marks]….” The statement that “it was the universal custom to issue such badges” is simply not true. Proctor’s book was a history of a firemen’s insurance company that issued a fire mark, and most likely the company issued a fire mark to gain a competitive advantage by using a large circular cast iron mark with a figure of an old double-decker hand pumper and the words “FIREMEN’S I. CO.” in large letters to advertise their company.
The purpose of the fire insurance companies organized by the volunteer firemen was no different than companies organized by non-firemen; to provide reimbursement for loss by fire. While the fire marks of a few firemen’s insurance companies are the most interesting and colorful of American marks, at best, they were an effective advertisement for the company and were instantly recognized by the citizens as an insurance company organized by the public spirited firemen. Their fire marks did not confer any actual additional benefits to the policyholder.
The Demise of Fire Marks
After the replacement of the volunteer fire companies by paid municipal fire departments, which began in 1853, the commonly accepted idea is that fire marks became more of an advertising emblem rather than a “fire mark.” This idea is even found in Alvin Bulau’s “Footprints of Assurance.”
Having shown that it wasn’t necessary to have a fire mark on the property for a volunteer company to fight a fire, and a fire mark did not guarantee a reward to a fire company, was the only reason for a fire mark to advertise the insurance company?
Fire marks served many purposes, but the main reason in America is quite simply, a fire mark was an advertising sign that the property was insured. Both the insurance company and the insured benefited from displaying a fire mark.
A fire mark on the house may have been the only evidence of insurance, after the insurance policy burned with all the other contents in the house. Perhaps, a mark simply stated to others that the person had enough good sense to purchase insurance. Certainly, a fire mark told a revengeful arsonist that the owner would not suffer a fire loss himself, since if the property were destroyed an insurance company would indemnify the owner.
That fire marks were an integral part of the insurance scene in some areas can be seen from the following excerpt of Charles Nelson Bishop, former Chicago Manager of the Western Department of The Spectator, in the May 23, 1918 50th Anniversary Issue of the old insurance days:
The purchaser of a policy covering building or household effects would be furnished with a tin house-plate, which was to be nailed on the building insured. It was not unusual for the customer to walk off with the house-plate and leave the policy in the office, thinking the plate was the more important.
The use of fire marks was one of the longest and successful ad campaigns in America. Outside the eastern cities with their already mentioned volunteer fire companies, fire marks showed the extent of a company’s expansion. The first agency manual of the Aetna Insurance Company, printed in 1819, states, “You will also be furnished with advertisements, to be posted up in the most advantageous and public places in your vicinity, as also with tin labels to be delivered to the insured, to be posted over the door, or in some other canspicuous [sic] place of the building insured.” A later 1867 Aetna manual states: “Have the house plates put up on every good building insured in town or country. It is an effective method of advertising, and often protects the insured from malicious incendiarism.”
The use of fire marks as advertising reached its peak from 1850 to 1870 as a result of the westward expansion of insurance, both by the established companies in the East, particularly Hartford, Connecticut, and the homegrown companies of the Midwest. Almost 56% of all companies that issued fire marks were organized between 1850 to 1870, with new Midwest companies issuing marks in a ratio of almost 3 to 1 in the ten year span of 1861 to 1870 alone.
Fire marks gradually disappeared at the same time as the paid fire departments spread. This is merely a coincidence. Even though some newly organized insurance companies issued marks in the 1890’s, their day as an effective form of advertising was over. Technology supplanted both the fire mark and the volunteer fire companies. The fire mark was replaced by more colorful and less expensive advertising, such as printed material using chromolithography. At the same time, technology led to the development of the steam fire engine, which was expensive to purchase and maintain. The new firefighting equipment created the need for a full time professional fire department, especially in the large cities.
For over 150 years American insurance companies issued fire marks. The marks of Philadelphia’s Fire Association, Mutual Assurance Company and United Firemen’s; the Firemen’s of Washington, DC; and the Firemen’s of Baltimore were reproduced from the 1950s to the 1990s and may be found on houses throughout America. Even today, there are enough policyholders interested in these symbols, because of the history and originality of design, that the Philadelphia Contributionship and The Baltimore Equitable Society still issue marks to keep the tradition alive. Shorn of all the ad man’s hype, fire marks tell an interesting story - one of an industry and the companies that left their “mark.”
Dick Doyle, a former Vice President of the Home Insurance Company, who worked with Alwin Bulau on “Footprints of Assurance,” said it best, “They [fire marks] are an expression of the insurance industry’s history, tradition and longevity. In an industry with little if any tangible evidence of its existence, other than contracts and pieces of paper, they were a visual sign for people to see and remember.”
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