Real vs Repro: How to spot original cast iron fire marks

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

Without a great deal of experience, purchasing an authentic cast iron fire mark is a daunting task. The following points and hints may be used to examine fire marks in your collection or to evaluate whether an offered mark is genuine.

Step 1. The Iron

Exhibit 1: Reproduction, soft rust that comes off on your hand.

Exhibit 1: Reproduction, soft rust that comes off on your hand.

Examine the iron. It should be a dark brown. Examine the iron on any original cast iron mark of the Fire Association of Philadelphia (FA) or the United Firemen’s Insurance Company, Philadelphia (UF) already in your collection. Notice the color and feel of the iron on the front and especially on the reverse. They all have rust but if the rust is soft and comes off on your hands, it’s probably a reproduction. (See Exhibit 1.) A number of repros are cast using an original fire mark as the pattern. The resultant reproduction will show rusting, but the rust is cast not authentic. (See Exhibit 2.) Also, if the reverse is painted or the iron has a black color, put it down. It’s probably a repro.

Hint: There were no fire insurance company fire marks made of aluminum. While there are imprinted sheet brass marks, there are no verified cast brass fire marks. Also, there are no company names, logos or casting numbers on authentic fire marks. (See Exhibit 3.)

Step 2. The Mounting Holes

Exhibit 2: Reproduction, cast rust; also note the painted black background.

Exhibit 2: Reproduction, cast rust; also note the painted black background.

Check to see if the mounting holes are cast, drilled or beveled. Generally, cast iron marks should be cast. Cast holes are not perfectly circular and are uneven. The FA mountings holes are examples of cast holes. The UF mark is an example of a cast hole that is beveled. There should be no drilling marks in the mounting holes. Drilled marks in a mounting hole can be seen by using a small flashlight and a magnifying glass.

Hints: The squatty Green Tree of the Mutual Assurance Company, B.40, has two mounting holes; the Associated Firemen’s of Baltimore, B.166, has only one hole.

Step 3. The features of the fire marks

Exhibit 3: Reproduction, see manufacturing company logo near top center.

Exhibit 3: Reproduction, see manufacturing company logo near top center.

Except in cases of the most extreme weathering, cast iron marks will retain their features, both the front and the reverse. Again, look at the features of your FA and UF marks and try to compare. Check to see if the images are clear or blurred. Blurred images are an indication of a reproduction. (See Exhibit 4.) There are features on the reverse of all marks. How does the feature compare to an original? For example, you can easily spot many UF repros just by looking at the reverse. Originals have extensive hollow areas such as the wheel spokes. (See Exhibit 5 and Exhibit 6.)

Next, examine the edges. Are there grind or file marks on the edges? A grinding mark will leave a small, relatively smooth flat surface. Filed edges, to smooth off excess iron or sprue marks, will show horizontal lines. Grinding marks tend to indicate a poor casting or a thick sprue with the need to grind away lots of iron. File marks may only indicate just the need to finish or clean the edge. You can expect to see some of either or even both.

To get a feel for how much is acceptable, take a look at the edges of your own marks. Other odd features, such as small circular dots or bubble-like marks, may indicate a poor casting.

Exhibit 4: Reproduction, note the lack of details on the engine. (Compare to Exhibit 8, which is an original.)

Exhibit 4: Reproduction, note the lack of details on the engine. (Compare to Exhibit 8, which is an original.)

Hints: Water showing from the hose on an FA that has a flat top on the letter “A” is a reproduction. (See Exhibit 7.)

There are three distinct features to look for on a UF: There should be two distinct steam pipes side by side coming from the right top of the boiler; you should be able to see the indentations on the hub cap of the two wheels; and you should see the image of the handle at the base of the air chamber. (See Exhibit 8.)

Since it’s not really possible to distinguish between an original that was poorly cast and a good looking reproduction, don’t bother.

Step 4: Colors

Cast iron fire marks were placed high out of reach on buildings. Gold features on a black background produced marks that were sure to be seen from the street below. Red engines or hydrants are not original even though a seller will say the red colors are original. What the seller says may be true, but that means it is a reproduction. Perhaps the red color is not original, but merely a repaint over gold or a long-worn-off gold. This is where you need to return to steps 1, 2 and 3 to make your final determination.

Tool Kit

Get yourself a magnet, jeweler’s loupe, small flashlight and a plastic see through ruler for measuring.

Happy antiquing! 

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.

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