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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