Robert M. Shea, CPCU, Fire Mark Circle of the Americas
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 by Benjamin Franklin, among others. 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. 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 12 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.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth segment on the exploration of fire marks, compliments of the Fire Mark Circle of the Americas. Watch future editions of Antique Trader for the continuation. See the first three installments in the Dec. 11, Dec. 13, 2013, and April 16, 2014, editions.