De-mystifying American fire marks

 

By Robert M. Shea, CPCU  (Fire Mark Circle of the Americas)

Everyone loves a good story, and the modern literature on American fire marks contains one or more of the following ideas to enliven the tale:

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

The Mutual Assurance Company ("The Green Tree Company")

The Mutual Assurance Company (“The Green Tree Company”)

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, if that’s the case, what are the facts and what was the purpose of fire marks in America?

Myth: 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 English fire insurance companies employed their own fire brigades, which only fought fires on properties identified by their employers’ fire mark or badge.

In America, the volunteer fire companies were in existence before the first fire insurance company was organized. They fought fires regardless of whether or not a building displayed a fire mark.

Fire mark from the United Firemen's Insurance Company of Philadelphia.

Fire mark from the United Firemen’s Insurance Company of Philadelphia.

Research shows that the idea first appears in the 20th century that a volunteer fire company would not fight a fire if there were no fire mark. Some examples from Philadelphia include:

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

“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

“If no insurance fire mark was seen the free-lancers [volunteers] would often declare a false alarm and calmly walk away from the scene.” 3

None of these stories about early Philadelphia are true. There are no primary sources which indicate that volunteer fire companies would not fight a fire unless the property was insured and had a fire mark. 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 volunteer fire companies were prominent social organizations and

The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire. (Photo courtesy Fire Mark Circle of Americas)

The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire. (Photo courtesy Fire Mark Circle of Americas)

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. Had this occurred, the hue and cry of the insurance industry and the public would certainly have been noted.

Ed. note: This is the first of several segments on the exploration of fire marks, compliments of the Fire Mark Circle of the Americas. Watch future editions of Antique Trader for the continuation.

 

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