Demystifying American Fire Marks, part 2

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

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.”

Fire mark

This circa 1845-1857 City Insurance Company (Cincinnati, Ohio) cast-iron firemark has been stripped of all paint. Called the “Rowing Machine Fire Mark,” the heavy iron piece depicts a rowing-type fire engine manned by six firemen. It sold for $3,000 in the Fire Mark Circle of the Americas’ 2013 auction.
(Photo courtesy Fire Mark Circle of the Americas)

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.”

To this day writers repeat and embellish these stories with the result that readers, while entertained, are misinformed about the early volunteers.

None of these stories about early Philadelphia are 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 1870s and 1880s 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

1900 fire mark

Fire mark issued about 1900. (Photo courtesy New York City Fire Museum)

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; they 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.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine ~
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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 10 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.

Ed. note: This is the second 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.