De-Mystifying American Fire Marks: Insurance company plaques boost confidence

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of six segments on the exploration of fire marks, compliments of the Fire Mark Circle of the Americas. Watch future editions of Antique Trader for the final installment. For previous fire mark topics, see these editions of Antique Trader: Dec. 11 and Dec. 13, 2013; April 16, and June 25, 2014.

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

Where as the English insurers organized their own private fire fighting brigades, in America, associations of volunteers in many large cities organized their own insurance companies. Not all of 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

Insurance company fire mark

Firemen’s Insurance Company fire mark in excellent condition was paired with a bright red enameled metal Fire Hose sign, very good condition, during a Rich Penn auction. Together, the pair, measuring 13 1/4 inches by 11 1/2 inches and 14 inches by 20 inches, respectively, earned $108. Photo courtesy Rich Penn Auctions

on their properties, especially one with a fire engine or fireplug on it. One writer attributes the more than 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

Fire Hose sign

This bright red enameled metal Fire Hose sign, in very good condition, appeared as part of a lot during a Rich Penn auction. The sign, measuring 14 inches by 20 inches, was part of a lot that earned $108. Photo courtesy Rich Penn Auctions

opened in Georgetown, the Potomac Insurance Company, chartered in 1831, did not issue a fire mark. This suggests 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 exist 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.

Fire Mark Circle of the Americas is an association of collectors of fire marks and firefighting memorabilia dedicated to preserving the historical aspects of insurance and firefighting. For additional information and membership, go to www.firemarkcircle.org.

Sources:

12 “Early Fire Protection, Fire Insurance Companies and the Use of Fire Marks,” George Cuthbert Gillespie, Address before the Society of Colonial Wars in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1904.

13 John Clagett Proctor, “Into Another Century,” Firemen’s Insurance Company of Washington and Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, The American Historical Society, Inc., 1937, p. 12.

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