AMERICAN FIRE MARKS - A GOOD STORY
Robert M. Shea, CPCU
Everyone loves a good story, and the 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.
· The volunteer fire company received 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. But, what are the facts, and what was the purpose of fire marks in America?
NO FIRE MARK, NO FIREFIGHTING COMPANY
The misconception that volunteer fire companies put out fires only on buildings that displayed a fire mark arises from the fact that some articles on fire marks do not make a distinction between the English and American relationship to fire marks. The early English fire insurance companies originally used fire marks to identify properties they insured because each insurance company had its own fire brigade. These private insurance brigades only fought fires on properties identified by their employers’ mark or badge. In England, the insurance companies originated before the firefighting companies. In America, it was the reverse – the volunteer fire companies were in existence before the first fire insurance company was organized. They fought fires whether or not a building displayed a fire mark. Even the literature that recognizes this distinction does not always follow through. It tends to generalize and equate the American experience with the English for the sake of the story.
Research shows that it is only in the 20th century when the idea first appears that a volunteer fire company would not fight a fire if there were no fire mark. As early as 1929 the Franklin Fire Insurance Company in its 100th anniversary history states that in the early years in Philadelphia "…each insurance company maintained its own fire company." With the proliferation of insurance 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." 1
The 1938 publication "Fire Mark" by the American Reserve Insurance Company states, "The fire marks…were guides to the competing Volunteers in determining whether or not a fire was worth the effort of putting it out…..But if a piece of property bore no Fire Mark the gallant volunteers more often than not quickly left, for then as now, there was no small profit in gratuitous acts of benevolence."2
In another 1938 article, W. Emmert Swigart states, "If no insurance fire mark was seen the free-lancers [volunteers] would often declare a false alarm and calmly walk away from the scene, much to the chagrin of the uninsured owner of the burning building."3
All these stories about early Philadelphia are not true. There are no primary sources, either insurance company or volunteer fire company records, which indicate that volunteer fire companies would not fight a fire unless the property was insured and had a fire mark. There is also no reference to such practice 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 concludes that, at least for St. Louis, there is no reference to a fire mark influencing the firefighters.4 A review of records of the Insurance Company of North America by Melissa Hough confirms the same conclusion for Philadelphia. To this day, writers repeat and embellish these stories with the result that readers, while entertained, are misinformed about the early volunteers.
The reality is that fire companies operated in a local area, and were organized and existed because of donations from citizens and businesses or public 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.
In the 150 - year span of fire marks in America fewer than 280 known different insurance companies issued fire marks; most insurance companies did not issue fire marks. If only about one in ten insurance companies issued fire marks, it’s not likely that the volunteers would let properties burn that did not have fire marks. Had this occurred, the hue and cry of the insurance industry and the public would certainly have been noted.
FIRE MARKS AS "REWARD" SIGNS
While not going so far as to say that a volunteer company would not fight a fire unless there was a fire mark on a burning building, most modern literature does claim that the volunteer company would receive 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 a matter of great status to be first at a fire.
I did find two insurance companies that make reference for a reward to the first volunteer fire company at a property it insured. One was in a short history of Philadelphia’s Mutual Fire Insurance Company of Germantown. Long before it issued a fire mark in 1926 to commemorate the nation’s Sesquicentennial, the insurer gave three dollars to the first company on the scene of a building it insured.5 The second was in "The Hartford of Hartford" in which the author says, "…for many years it was apparently company policy to pay five dollars to whatever engine company first reached a fire with its equipment in working order."6
My research has found that rewards did not occur in Baltimore and Philadelphia, where many insurance companies issued fire marks. In addition, the minute books of the Trenton, NJ volunteer fire companies from approximately 1842 to 1872 show that some, but not all, insurance companies writing business in Trenton paid an "insurance premium" to the volunteer fire company that had "first water" on an insured property. While these minute books show there was rivalry between the companies, there was none of the riots portrayed in firefighting literature. There is no reference to a fire mark in any minutes of the Trenton volunteers. Besides, not all the insurers, who paid an insurance premium, issued a fire mark. Conversely, not all companies that issued fire marks, such as the Hartford Fire and the Aetna, paid an insurance premium. This leads to the conclusion that in Trenton there is no connection between fire marks and rewards or "insurance premiums."
Without any documentation to support it, the first modern reference to the idea of payment to the volunteers is found in a 1933 Insurance Company of North America publication: "…volunteer companies were formed on a purely free-lance basis, putting out whatever fires they were able and depending on the bounty of the owners." The same article continues, "…the Fire Mark stood as a guarantee to all fire brigades that the insurance company which insured the house in question would reward handsomely the brigade extinguishing the blaze on the premises." While not naming any city, the article continues, "Stimulated by higher and more certain compensation, competition among the fire brigades waxed hot, soon reaching a stage of bloody noses and blackened eyes." 7 This is good stuff; too bad it isn’t true.
In a 1936 address to the Fire Underwriters Association of the Pacific, Elmer W. Bonstin stated, "…in America …it was the thought in back of the use of marks here that they would pay special attention to fire-marked buildings in anticipation of a substantial reward being paid to them by the insurance company."8 Almost every subsequent article on fire marks has repeated the idea of fire marks as reward signs. The reality is that the cash books of a number of Philadelphia volunteer fire companies list irregular annual donations in the same amount from the American Fire Insurance Company, the Franklin Fire Insurance Company and the Philadelphia Contributionship, but no reference to payments for particular fires.
To say the winner collected a monetary reward from the insurance company puts a whole different spin on what was going on. The fact that the Trenton volunteers collected a $5 reward from some insurance companies does not reflect on the public-spirited volunteers throughout America, and Trenton, who purchased their own equipment and hazarded their lives to protect the public. Such famous volunteers as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and countless others, would certainly take exception that their efforts are so described.
FIRE MARKS IN 18th CENTURY PHILADELPHIA
If fire marks were not used to tell the volunteer firefighters which properties were insured so they would fight the fire, or at least get a reward if they did so, what was the purpose of fire marks in America? The answer differs by insurance company and insured, and is further complicated by area of the country.
The first American insurance company to issue a fire mark was The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire founded in 1752. Benjamin Franklin 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 there were already six volunteer fire companies in Philadelphia, the Contributionship did not organize its own fire brigade, as did its London model. As mentioned earlier, it was the practice of English insurers to identify insured property with a fire mark and the Contributionship adopted this practice for a good reason – half of the Contributionship’s directors were members of the Union Fire Company, America’s first volunteer fire company, which Benjamin Franklin founded in 1736.9 That is, six of the twelve directors were volunteer firefighters themselves. As contributors, they would suffer a financial loss for each property they insured. Therefore, the fire mark identified a property; "…that all contributors would be encouraged to save … from destruction."10 The six directors had a dual reason to minimize fire losses – they were volunteer firefighters and mutual policyholders.
The following quote from a 1929 publication of the Contributionship 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" [as fire marks were called at the time] considered, that in 1755, a fire having damage the house of Edward Shippen [also a founding member of the Union Fire Company] which had no badge put up, the minutes [of the Contributionship] 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.""11
Fire marks also served a useful purpose. It told a revengeful arsonist that the owner would not suffer a fire loss himself. If the property were destroyed, an insurance company would indemnify the owner. This fact, no doubt, may have deterred many a would-be arsonist.
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 to not insure houses with trees in front of them, and any member having had 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 was a green tree on a wooden board.
The third Philadelphia insurer, the Insurance Company of North America, 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 – there were about 24 active volunteer fire companies at the time, and it was a stock insurer, not a mutual. In short, fire marks were not necessary to mark a house as insured for firefighting purposes and insurance was more of a business.
FIREMEN’S INSURANCE COMPANIES
Where as the English insurers organized their own private firefighting brigades, in America, associations of volunteers in many large cities 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 that the volunteers organized. It is not hard to imagine that these insurers would influence policyholders to put a fire mark on their properties, especially one with a fire engine or fireplug on it. One writer attributes the over 40,000 Fire Association fire marks in Philadelphia to the enthusiastic salesmanship of the hundreds of volunteer firemen, for, "…it was only natural that the firemen should be especially careful to protect the property that was insured in their own company."12 The insurance company would get free advertising or name recognition, and the insured would feel that the firefighters would give an extra effort if the property had the firefighters’ mark. It is conceivable to think that the firemen’s insurance companies would encourage such thinking - a "win-win" situation.
In a 1937 history of the Firemen’s Insurance Company of Washington and Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, John Clagett Proctor writes, "Since in 1837 and for many years previously and subsequently the volunteer fire companies controlled the insurance companies, and since any loss sustained had to be paid by the firemen (indirectly, from the insurance company’s treasury), it was perhaps not unnatural that the marked houses received, to state it mildly, preferential attention."13 While it’s not clear whether Mr. Proctor refers to Washington only or Washington and other cities, the statement that "volunteer fire companies controlled the insurance companies" is difficult to substantiate. If "control" means own, then it should be noted that prior to 1840 there were only nine known insurance companies organized by volunteer companies.
While it is known that many insurance men were also volunteers or honorary, non-active members, the degree of influence they may have had is merely conjecture. It may be that the idea of the volunteers giving "preferential attention" to houses with marks, led Mr. Proctor to infer that the fire companies controlled the insurance companies. It appears that the author subscribed to the erroneous idea that a mark was required or at least that there would be a reward. It is also difficult to accept Mr. Proctor’s statement since the first insurance company opened in Georgetown, the Potomac Insurance Company, chartered in 1831, did not issue a fire mark. I suggest that the Firemen’s issued a fire mark to gain a competitive advantage by using the mark to advertise their company. The company had a large cast iron, circular, mark with a figure of an old double-decker hand pumper and the words "FIREMEN’S I. CO." in large letters.
This triangle of fire mark, fire insurance company and volunteer fire company may have led modern writers to an erroneous association of fire marks and the volunteers that exists to this day. That is, unless a fire mark was on a property, the volunteers would not fight the fire or that the volunteers would receive a reward.
THE DEMISE OF FIRE MARKS
Since fire marks were not required for a volunteer fire company to fight a fire, and a fire mark did not guarantee a reward to the volunteer fire company, one might ask, "What was the purpose of 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. Or maybe, the agent just put it up without asking.
After the elimination of the volunteer fire companies, the commonly accepted idea has been 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."14
Fire marks served many purposes, but the main reason in America is quite simply, a fire mark was a sign that the property was insured. Both the insured and the insurance company benefited from this "advertising."
The use of fire marks was one of the longest and successful ad campaigns in America. Outside the eastern cities 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." 15 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."16
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.
The fact that fire marks gradually disappeared at the same time as the paid fire departments spread 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. It wasn’t the paid fire departments that caused the demise of fire marks; it was technology. Technology supplanted both the fire mark and the volunteer fire companies at the same time. 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 expensive steam engine. The new firefighting equipment created the need for a full time, professional, fire service, especially in the large cities.
For over 150 years American insurance companies issued fire marks. The Philadelphia Contributionship and The Baltimore Equitable Society still issue marks to keep alive the tradition. 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 are still reproduced and may be found on houses throughout America. 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.
The late 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."17
1Jerome B. Gray, "One Hundred Years", The Franklin Fire Insurance Company, 1929, p. 44 ff.