Marks of Assurance
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Fire Marks in London
The use of fire marks began in London after the Great London Fire of 1666. The first insurance company, The Fire Office, was formed in 1667, using a phoenix as their fire mark emblem. Fire marks were issued to policy holders to identify properties a company insured. Insurance companies, aiming to keep claims to a minimum, also organized their own fire brigades to put out fires and limit the amount of damage done during the process. In London, the private fire insurance brigades only extinguished fires with the respective insurance company fire mark on the property. Private fire brigades protected London from fire until the 1860s. The cost of compensation was becoming too expensive and insurance companies insisted that the government take over. In 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Works, a government entity responsible for protecting life and property from fire, formed the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
Fire mark issued about 1900.
Fire Marks in the United States
In contrast to London, organized firefighting existed outside of insurance companies. While private citizens organized most insurance companies as stock or mutual companies, the volunteer fighters throughout the United States as early as 1817, with the Fire Association of Philadelphia, also organized their own insurance companies with firemen owning the stock and managing the company. Insurance companies organized fire patrols to help in salvage operations at a fire, but not to fight fires themselves. The first American insurance company to use fire marks was the Philadelphia Contributionship (1752). The company’s fire mark consisted of four clasped and crossed leaden hands mounted on a wooden shield. In 1792, the Insurance Company of North America, the third insurance company in Philadelphia, made the purchase of a fire mark optional. A fire mark was more of a promotional item because twenty-four active volunteer fire companies protected Philadelphia from fire, leaving insurance companies to handle underwriting. A fire mark was not needed to show a property was insured – a fire was fought whether or not a property displayed a fire mark. Most American insurance companies did not issue fire marks.
The purpose of fire marks in America varied by insurance company and part of the country. The main reason for displaying a fire mark was to advertise the insurance company and to signal that a property was insured. Some American insurance companies, such as North River Insurance Company, only issued fire marks to policy holders in foreign countries.
Fire marks gave assurance to policyholders. The existence of a fire mark on an insured property may have minimized the amount of damage to a property as the firefighters did their job. If firefighters saw a fire mark, they may have been more careful when entering a property and extinguishing the fire. Also, a fire mark may have deterred an arsonist from maliciously destroying a property. The fire mark signaled that the owner would be compensated for damages and that law enforcement would likely attempt to find the arsonist.
The use of fire marks peaked from 1850 to 1870 as insurance expanded westward. Technology lead to the demise of the fire mark as more colorful and less expensive ways of advertising developed. American insurance companies issued fire marks for more than 150 years.
Fire Marks Today
Today, fire marks are collector items. Harold V. Smith, former chairman of the Home Insurance Company, started collecting fire marks as a teenager. In 1953, Alwin E. Bulau wrote a book, Footprints of Assurance, based on Smith’s collection. Bulau’s book has become the standard for fire mark collectors, who identify fire marks by their Bulau number. In 1954, Smith sold his collection to the Home Insurance Company. In 1980, the Home Insurance Company presented Smith’s collection to the museum of the Fire Department of New York, which was incorporated into the New York City Fire Museum in 1987.
For tradition, the Philadelphia Contributionship and The Baltimore Equitable Society still issue fire marks. The Fire Mark Circle of the Americas consists of an international group of collectors who work to increase others' knowledge of fire marks.