Tanya Hanson: Historic “Fire Marks”



 I wrote this blog some time ago, before my fair homeland of Southern California exploded in flames.  Although I live on a coastal plain far from the burning hills and valleys, the sky miles away is filled with visible “pyrocumulus” clouds of smoke that resemble nuclear blasts. Nearly 200 square miles have burned. The only good thing, if a good thing can be found:   the “devil winds,” the hellish Santa Anas aren’t blowing.  The hell would become Armageddon  if that were so.

My hubby spent his professional career chasing this kind of wildfire. He’s retired now, but I remember those panic-stricken days glued to the TV set, not knowing exactly where in the state he was, or how long he’d be there. Or worse, if I’d ever seen him again.  In fact, when we were dating, if I got stood up it wasn’t personal. I’d turn on the TV and sure enough, there was a wildfire somewhere, and he was out in the thick of it. Tragically, a pal of his died in a firestorm on Monday. He  remembers “cutting line” –removing stubborn brush and growth in a path around something to save it –with Ted on the same winding, treacherous mountain  ridgeline where Ted, a fire captain, died.

Right now, let’s bombard heaven for the safety of the men and women fighting these infernos, for the folks having to evacuate and leave behind most of what they hold dear, and for the precious wildlife and domesticated animals, so terrified and displaced. We made a donation today to the SPCA to help feed the sweet animals they have sheltered.

Now, on a happier note, throughout those 34 years as a firefighter, my hubby received a ton of unique fire-related gifts from family and friends.  He’s got a crystal liquor decanter shaped like a fire hydrant, reproduction antique cast-iron toy engines, a framed collage of all his cloth patches,…and a whole caboodle of “fire marks.”  firemark-valiant-hose

Fire mark? Whazzat?

The fire mark, a cast iron plaque about a foot large, originated in England long ago. British fire insurance companies used these plaques to identify properties they’d insured because each company had its own fire brigade. A private firefighting team would put out a fire only when it saw its employer’s mark on a property! Yikes. 


Not here in America! Volunteer fire companies existed here long before the fire insurance companies.  In fact, groups of volunteer firefighters in many large cities organized their own insurance companies, most of which issued fire marks. However, the “badge,” was never necessary for firefighting purposes.  Firemen put out your fire no matter what. The fire mark was simply an advertising tool.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire Company, America’s first volunteer fire company, in Philadelphia, and in 1752, his insurance company was the first to issue a fire mark. Six of the company’s  twelve directors had every inducement to reduce fire loss—they were volunteer firefighters as well as mutual policy holders. The fire mark identified properties that would be financial losses for them, and saving those properties became a high priority.  

However, no volunteer company refused to protect a burning home or business that didn’t  display a fire mark. In fact, volunteer fire companies raced each other to be “first water” on a fire. Competition among companies was fierce, rivalry intense. It was huge to be first at a fire.firemark-company

 But researcher Robert M. Shea has found rumors starting in the 20th century that claimed volunteer fire companies let structures burn if there were no fire mark. Not true! In 1929, the Franklin Fire Insurance Company in its 100th anniversary history stated that in Philadelphia’s early years, all fire companies would respond, but only the company whose “badge” was displayed on the structure would fight the flames.  A 1938 article by W. Emmert Swigart stated that  “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.” Not true!

No sources exist, no records, no newspaper accounts or most of all, no public outrage, indicate that volunteer fire companies ignored their firefighting duties unless the property had a fire mark. Like with most anything, a snippet of falsehood often seems more intriguing than the truth, and I myself believed the stories for years until I researched this blog.  It does appear true, however, that some fire marks indicated an insurance company that paid rewards up to five dollars to the first engine company that arrived to a fire with its equipment in good working order.


Fire marks in America were definitely not required for firefighting. Their main purpose was a sign that the property was insured in addition to good advertising for the insurance company. One insurance company took to heart Benjamin Franklin’s theory that trees attract lightning and voted not to insure houses with trees in front of them. Its mark was, appropriately, a tree.firemark-of-tree

Indeed, the fire mark was one of the longest ad campaigns in America. The use of fire marks reached its peak from 1850 to 1870 as a result of the westward expansion of established companies in the East, and the smaller new companies of the Midwest..


The heyday of the “badge” was over by the 1890’s, By then, the era of modern firefighting, with full-time trained men and high- power steam engines had begun.. And of course, printed advertising material for an insurance company was cheaper and easier to dispense than the heavy cast-iron “badges.” 

However, the Baltimore Equitable Society still issues fire marks to keep the tradition alive and well.               

                                                                                     firemark-firehands                                          firemark-running

So how about  you? Is “fire mark” a new term for you today, or have you seen ‘em before?  Anyone ever visited a fire station?  Ridden in or on a fire truck? Any other “fire-y” tales to share?   


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32 thoughts on “Tanya Hanson: Historic “Fire Marks””

  1. Hi Tanya — yes, “fire mark” is a new term for me today. I know very little about what these brave men and women do. It’s always interesting to learn more!


  2. Wonderful information. I knew nothing about fire marks. Thank you, too, for your thoughtful post on California’s behalf. I grew up in that state, and whenever I see the fires on the news it makes me sad. I am definitely praying for all those involved, especially the brave firefighters who battle the unpredictable blaze.

  3. I had my first experience with a wildfire here in Halifax this spring. It came within half a kilometre of our house, and I had the car packed and ready to evacuate. Fortunately the wind shifted and rain came in, giving the firefighters the chance to get ahead of the blaze.

    It’s a very strange feeling to be sitting in your home, deciding which of your possessions are important enough to save. I also felt terrible for the wildlife, nesting birds and displaced pets. My own dog and cats were in the car, ready to go with me. This fire was started by human carelessness. What a waste.

    I’ll add my prayers for the safety of all who fight fires.

  4. hi Helen, always so good to see you at The Junction. Wildfire fighting definitely is different from burning buildings. In fact, my hubby said he prefered the outdoors–no burning roof to fall in on him. Nonetheless, it is horrific work, and carrying 50-plus pounds of equipment, wearing heavy fire-retardent “turnouts” in 100-plus degrees has got to be a challenge! Thank God for them.

    Thanks for stopping by today.

  5. Hi Karen, thanks for your good words, prayers, and visit to the Junction today. I can’t even imagine forging ahead into a fire zone. Yikes
    I’m so happy you stopped by.

  6. Hi Jennie, I owe you an e-mail…wait for it LOL. Thanks for visiting Wildflower Junction today, and for your prayers.

    Wow, you had your own wildfire experience. I can’t even imagine the first-hand terror. It would be tough to decide what to take along, but my animals would definitely be first! I always ache for the wild animals, as do you. And the fact that these fires are almost always human caused is just wrong! Sometimes it is just carelessless, but dang it, be careful! Right now I believe the one-digit humidity and unusual-for-August high temps are the big reasons. What I don’t like is people told to evacuate who refuse, thereby endangering personnel later on when they must be air-lifted out. Grrrrrrrrrr.

    Good to see you here! oxoxox

  7. Hi Tanya, It is interesting that you should write about fires today. My friend, who I live with at the moment, left last night to go to the Yucaipa fire and her daughter, who lives in Phoenix, is at another fire near there. They both work for the Forest Service and go where they are needed. The daughter drives a water tender truck. My friend does the bookkeeping at the service area.
    Where we live in the Owens Valley, we can smell the smoke from all the LA fires and as an added one we got the Yosemite smoke, too.
    When the sun came up this a.m., it came in the window all red. Very fire oriented. I am baby sitting with the daughter’s 3 year old boy. We have had him most all summer, because of fires.
    Your article is fascinating. I learned a lot from it.

  8. Hi Mary, thanks so much for stopping by The Junction today and for sharing with us your own personal firefighters! May they stay safe!

    Oh, I have a 2 1/2 year old grandson who is the newest love of my life. I love spending every minute I can with him! I hope yours doesn’t miss his mommy too much though.

  9. Tanya, this is so interesting. I’d never heard the term “fire mark.” And it seems pretty strange that early insurance companies had their own firemen. I’m glad that practice didn’t last. Must’ve been very confusing to say the least. And can you believe I’ve never visited a firestation before. Nope. I’ve always wanted to though. The opportunity just never arose.

    Too sad about your husband’s friend. Very tragic. I’ll say lots of prayers for all not only him and his family but for all the firemen who’re still battling this horrible demon. I’m glad you live some distance away from the fires.

  10. I’ve never heard of fire marks before.
    I was at a historically preserved town in Colorado, the name of which escapes me now, and they talked about the wealthy mine owners who paid top dollar for the most up do date fire fighting equipment. This was in … 1860 or so. And this town Georgetown, colorado I think, exists to this day because of that fire fighting equipment. Fire swept through many, many old towns and destroyed them.
    Yes, I checked. Georgetown. Fascinating place. I wonder why I’ve never written a blog post about it.

  11. Hi Linda and Mary, my filly sisters! All I learn from your blogs, this time I can share firemarks with you.

    Linda, I remember visiting a fire station when I was in kindergarten. In those days, they still had fire poles from the second story, and I remember a guy sliding down it. No department around here has poles anymore…sleepy guys just awakened were hurting their legs.

    Boo, nobody has fire dogs anymore either.

    Mary, you’ve got me intrigued about Georgetown! Thanks for the link. I promise not to steal the idea, though.

    Thanks for posting.


  12. This was all new to me and I’ve been around quite
    a spell! Somewhere I read that we should learn
    something new every day, I’ll count this as my new
    knowledge for today! Thanks so much, Tanya!

    Pat Cochran

  13. Tanya,

    I have never heard of “fire marks” Thank you for sharing this info with me.

    I also want to say my prayers are with the brave firefighters. My heart hurts for them all.

    My son, is a firefighter for the state forestry here in TN. I know how you feel Tanya for when he goes out on a fire I am so tore up until I see his face again. He loves his job and wants to become a fire jumper. Boy, does that scare me to death. So, Tanya I know how the worries of your loved ones and if they will return home safely.

    Also, I was a 911 dispatcher/Supervisor and I have dealt with the other end where all the frantic 911 calls come in and when you have a firefighter to get hurt then the levels go sky high.

    So, thanks goes out to all the firefighters in every state. We appreciate everything that you do

    Walk in peace and harmony,


  14. I grew up around a firehouse. Where we lived, they only had volunteer staions, no paid firefighters… My dad, his dad, and my mom’s father all were volunteer firefighters. I grew up playing around the trucks and firehouse… some of the best memories there… some scary ones too… they are very brave people!!!

  15. I have seen fire marks before, and have visited a fire station. I was a volunteer fireperson in a small rural fire district for 23 years.

  16. I’d never heard of a fire mark. When I was little my uncle was a volunteer fireman and sometimes we would be out in the car with him and he would have to respond to a fire while we were with him. We would sit in the car (at a safe distance) and watch the volunteers at work. When I was 8 I lost my father in a house fire on Christmas Day. When I was 29 we lost our trailer to a house fire so fire is something that strikes home with me. So I’ll be praying for their safety.

    Linda Henderson

  17. I’ve heard of them before but didn’t know the details. Thanks for the info.

    And God bless all firemen and particularly those in harm’s way now. There’s a special place in heaven for them.

  18. Tanya, I’ve seen the bronze markers, just didn’t know what they were called. Thanks for the education!

    Hugs to Tim and prayers are going out to keep the firefighters safe.

  19. Tanya,
    My first post didn’t go thru. I hope you get this. I loved today’s blog and it’s timely to us who live in southern CAL. My love and prayers go to out to those families who are evacuated and for the firefighters who lost their lives this week. It’s terribly sad.

    Thanks for the learning experience about Fire Marks. Who knew?

  20. Hi Tanya!

    Timely post. I’m sitting here in the middle of the fires — just a mile or so away, it is still burning strong. Last night they set fires purposely — it looked terrible — but they were setting them in order to save some homes.

    My husband and I took a walk down there to have a look. Sad. All that life being burned — but they did an incredible job of making sure people’s homes were saved.

    Timely post, Tanya.

  21. I grew up with a firefighting family. My father and Uncles were volunteer fireman. My Uncle and dad were firechief and deputy fire chief when I was a teen. My Uncle was State Fire Marshall for several years. I wonder why I never knew of the ‘fire marks’. This was a really interesting blog.

    The firefighters and residents are in my prayers.

  22. Am glad your husband is retired from the fire scene. My son has been talking about training for the Hot Shot crews, but hasn’t done anything about it. Fires can shift so rapidly, most people don’t appreciate how dangerous it is. Sorry to hear about his friend.
    Had never heard of fire marks before. Very interesting. Lived across the street from a fire station when I was 5. That was a long time ago. Used to sit out front of the station with the firemen in the evenings. Have been with my children’s classes when they visited the fire station. We have had a few forest fires in this area the past few years. Watched from our house as one crest a ridge a few miles away. Had one along the river in the town where I work. Sat with my grandson and watched the helicopter dip water from the river and dump it on the flames.
    In college, my husband did controlled burns in the forest with the University of Florida. A well done controlled burn can prevent a lot of the problems we are having now. It gets rid of the dangerous deadwood and doesn’t damage the trees. Nature has its own way of clearing away the deadwood and that is what many states suffer through every year. We went to Yellowstone and the Tetons a few years ago. There were fires in Yellowstone and a good portion of the time, visibility was not very good.

  23. Hi Pat, thanks for stopping by today. I’ve been on the road today up north to visit our niece and am now just finding wi-fi LOL So glad to have contributed to your daily knowledge! Hugs!

    Meinda, thanks for posting. Here are good wishes always for your son’s safekeeping. I know how scary it is, but how important our guys’ tasks.

  24. Colleen, I love the idea of volunteers! The fire-folks do get stretched thin. My hubby’s department had several volunteer stations, out in remote areas where one “engine” couldn’t cover 300 or 400 square miles on its own! Thank God for them.

    Estella, wow! A real volunteer firefighter in our midst. The stories you must be able to tell. Write a book!

    Linda, my heart breaks tha tyour experience was so tragic. Here’s a cyber-hug.

    ANd thanks, Patricia, for all your good wishes.

  25. Hi Charlene and Kay, more filly sisers. Char, I know you’ve been close to evacuation during past fires. Prayers work so I know the families of Ted and “Q” (his wife is expecting their first in a fe weeks!) will gain comfort and peace from everyone’s thoughts and prayers.

    Kay, I had this blog written and planned weeks ago. It was quite fitting, Ithought. I now how close the fires are to you and yours…we’ve been thinking of you and sending prayers upward. God bless and keep you.

  26. Hi Connie, another firehouse veteran. Thanks for posting today.

    Patricia, my hubby started out as a hot shot. I think those years were his favorite.

    Re: controlled burns. Much of California’s terrain is supposed to burn naturally (e.g. lightning strikes et al) to control brush build-up and to activate seeds for certain trees and plantlife. But civilization has moved outward, and the wilderness isn’t so wild anymore. Homes and humans must be protected, so brush builds up.

    Thanks everyone, for posting today, and for your good wishes and prayers for firefighters everywhere.

  27. Thanks for sharing, Tanya!

    I had a weird experience at my booksigning a couple weekends ago. A lady picked up my book and asked about the time period. I told her it was set in Colonial America. She asked if it had Ben Franklin in it, and then proceeded to tell me he had the first mob/mafia in America because if someone didn’t buy insurance from him, his firefighters wouldn’t put out the fire. When I told her Ben Franklin wasn’t in my book because I didn’t feel comfortable putting words in someone’s mouth, she left.

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