A History of the Fire Mark

| Agency Customers, Fire Insurance, Insurance education.

In 1666 the city of London suffered a devastating fire that destroyed 16,000 homes and 89 churches. Insurance, as we know it today, did not exist and victims relied on charitable donations and limited government aid to rebuild. It became clear that a more organized method of protecting property owners was needed.

The earliest fire insurance companies trace their roots to London in the aftermath of this fire. The exact date is not known but most historians agree that The Fire Office of London was the first to issue a fire insurance policy in approximately 1680.

At that time, few streets were named and even fewer buildings were numbered. To properly identify which buildings they were covering, insurance agents would attach a fire mark to the structure. The earliest fire marks were made of lead or copper and usually carried the insurer’s logo or crest. Later designs were made of cast iron or ceramic.

The tradition of the Fire Mark carried over to the American Colonies with some of the earliest examples issued by insurers in Philadelphia around 1750. Fire brigades at that time were not publicly funded agencies. Instead, the insurance companies would pay the brigade for their services. Because of this arrangement fire brigades had little incentive to extinguish a fire at a building that did not have a posted fire mark. Generally, the brigade would arrive and simply protect the surrounding buildings as they watched the uninsured property burn to the ground. This was a fantastic incentive for property owners to purchase insurance and the main reason that fire departments in modern times are publicly funded.

These examples below are reproductions of fire marks used by American insurers in the 1800’s:

United Firemans Insurance Co.
One of the first steam powered fire engines ever used, made by the Reaney and Neafie Company of Philadelphia, is depicted on this 1860 fire mark
The Philadelphia Contributionship
Formed in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin and other members of the local fire brigade.  This is the oldest insurance company in the United States and still operates today. Each fire mark issued by the Contributionship was cast with the policy number included.
Fire Insurance Company of Baltimore
Depicts a hand operated pump that required 30 men to pump less than two gallons of water per stroke. It was issued in 1835 by the Fire Insurance Co. of Baltimore. Insured’s were charged $1.25 for it and it had to be returned to the company if the policy was discontinued.
Insurance Company of North America
Formed in 1792 as an association and operating today as CIGNA Insurance company.
Fire Association of Philadelphia
Formed in 1817 by several volunteer fire brigades, this company was run for several years from the home of one the founders.  Today we know the Association as Reliance Insurance Company.