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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Fire Marks From The Days Of Yesteryear

( Orginally published 1962 )

Do you know that a fire mark can be worth a thousand dollars? Or do you even know what it is?

Have you ever looked at the side of an old building-and seen a plate or plaque nailed securely to the wall? Have you ever wondered what it was? Well, chances are good that it was a fire mark, telling firemen that this building was insured by the company whose name or emblem was illustrated on the plaque.

The fire mark was placed on the outside of a building so that the fire brigade-and anyone else interested-would know that the building was insured and by which company.

Fire marks were always placed on the outside of a building. They are usually to be found on an old building between the first and second floors rather than on the ground floor, because this prevented the fire mark from being destroyed or removed by pranksters or children.

However, in towns along the rivers, the treasure hunter must search as high as six stories up for the fire mark, which was placed so high because of the floods which are common in some river towns. Located well above the water line of the highest possible flood stage, the fire marks were in plain view at all times and the firemen could easily tell who insured the building.

Fire marks were first used in Europe, where they have been known for almost three hundred years, but in both Europe and America each company adopted its own particular fire mark.

In Europe, in the early days of their history, the fire marks identified property insured by a particular company, so that the insurance companies, which had their own fire brigades, could put out fires on properties which were marked by their own particular fire mark.

American fire marks were first used in the 1750's although even before then America had organized methods of fire fighting. In 1696 bucket brigades were formed. In 1718 the first fire engine was brought over from London; and in 1721 we find a public chimney sweep appointed, although this was in the line of fire prevention rather than fire fighting.

In 1735 the first fire brigade was formed, and in 1752 the first American fire insurance company was formed. In America, the fire brigades knew that the insurance company, whose mark was on a building, would reward the fire brigade which successfully put out the fire. And if two or more brigades showed up to put out the fire, many times fights broke out among the firemen, with bloody noses and black eyes attesting to their claim that their brigade, and their brigade alone, was the one which put out the fire.

Many times the fights took place-with each brigade using their fists to prove that they got there first with the best men and the best equipment-while the fire raged on. Sometimes the building burned down before the fire fighters stopped fighting each other.

If the brigades arrived at a building which did not have a fire mark-they turned around and went home, and the building burned merrily down.

The use of the fire mark has died away until today it is an almost forgotten piece of early Americana-but not to the collector of fire marks, for to him the tradition lives on.

American fire marks have been made of tin, cast iron, and lead. Fire marks have also been made of brass, copper and zinc. And some comparatively recent fire marks were made of porcelain or enamel upon iron.

Probably one of the most interesting searches for lost treasures ever made was the search made for the first fire mark put out by the Insurance Company of North America. It was "A wavy star of six points, cast in lead and mounted on a wooden shield."

The first fire mark of this company-the star design-was issued in 1794, but later other designs replaced this one. But it was the "star" which every collector wanted.

In 1914, it was believed that no star designs were in existence. In 1915 it was believed that the star variety had been lost forever. In 1928 the star design was still believed to have been all destroyed.

Yet a year later, on an old building on Pace Street, near Second, in the city of Philadelphia, a collector noticed an unusual stain on the face of the building. Being a collector, he noticed immediately that the stain was the same size and shape as the shield which records said was the shield of the star design.

He located the owner of the building-and then the owner's father, and then the owner's grandfather. Finally, after many questions and searchings, the shield was found-in the hands of a carpenter.

Believing himself, happily, in possession of the lost "star," imagine the collector's disappointment when he discovered that while the shield was the right size and shape, the design nailed to it was another design entirely-one which was not rare at all.

But, not ready to give up, he carefully examined what he had and discovered, underneath the not-so-rare fire mark, an outlinethe outline of a star.

Careful questioning brought out the facts that the star had been sold years before to a second-hand dealer from Baltimore. Then the search began in earnest. Every antique and second-hand store in Baltimore was searched and their managers and owners questioned with regard to the star.

Finally, on the outskirts of the city, the star was found. It had been gathering dust for years on the shelves of the shop. Even then, however, the collector was not satisfied. First he applied chemical tests to prove the age of the star. Then he tried the star against the shield-and it fitted, "nail hole for nail hole, line for line!"

Today, that star is with the collection of the Insurance Company of North America Companies, and it is exhibited at 1600 Arch street in Philadelphia, which now has not one star design but two.

C. A. Palmer, of that company, states almost sadly, ". . . this company's first mark, the six-pointed lead star on wood, is so rare . . . there being only two in existence that we know of, that from a monetary point of view, no amount of money would produce another one, and fortunately one of these rare marks was donated to us, whereas the other cost us $500."

The treasure hunter's challenge here is obvious-find another "star."

The value of fire marks, as in coin collecting, is based on rarity and condition. Rare marks are worth from $200 to $1,000 apiece, depending on age and condition. There are certain lone fire marks which are unique, however, and if a new, unique mark were to be discovered, it would be quite valuable.

Below are listed fire marks which are considered rare, worth on an average around $200 apiece.

Philadelphia Contributionship: (1) Fancy or scalloped design shieldfour interlocking hands, issued about 1765. (2) Shield has rounded top and bevel edge, issue of 1774. (3) Shield is plain edged board, issued about 1776. (4) Much smaller than above, issue of 1815, oddly shaped plaque. (5) Issue of 1819, small hands.

Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire, Philadelphia: (1) Design of the "Green Tree"-dated 1784 shows a leaden tree on a bevelled-edge shield of wood. (2) Absence of bevelled edge, issue of 1797. (3) First of the elliptical wooden shields, issued in 1799. (4) Issue of 1803, shield much smaller than the first oval-last wooden mark issued by the company. (5) The first all-iron mark of the "Green Tree" and largest of its iron varieties-this one measures thirteen inches from top to bottom. Known as the "large flat back," issue of 1805. (6) Issue of 1806-known as "small flat back"-the second iron mark issued by this company. (7) Not more than three dozen of this squatty iron variety are known to have been issued, dates from 1827.

Insurance Company of North America: (1) Leaden eagle on a wooden plaque. The marks dated 1794 are the famous "star" fire marks but after December 26, 1796, the insured had a choice of this leaden eagle or the six-pointed star. (2) Copper eagle rising from a cloud. This mark has a rolled edge and came into use just after 1800. Not more than six specimens are known to exist. (3) Iron eagle, differing slightly from the copper eagle. This mark was first issued in 1830 and has a beaded edge.

Fire Association of Philadelphia: (1) Fire Association mark dating 1817. Flat and made of iron, with a full stream of water gushing from a hose attached to an old-time fire plug. The letters "F.A." were gilded, as were the plug and hose. The grass at the base of the hydrant was green. (2) Also an extremely flat, iron variety, except that water is not gushing from the hose. This is the only mark made by the Fire Association with a short hose ending to the right of the center of the mark; issue of 1825. (3) Made of lead; issued 1857. (4) Made of brass. Only twelve issued; some have many sets of numbers in gilt; dates about 1859. Rarest of all issues of this company.

Hope Mutual Insurance Company of Philadelphia: (1) Issued in 1854, an oval iron casting with beaded edge, showing in center a figure of "Hope" resting on an anchor.

United Firemen's Insurance Company of Philadelphia: (1) Issue of 1860; very large, heavy iron casting. Has three holes for attaching to houses, whereas later marks have the regulation two holes.

City Insurance Company of Cincinnati, Ohio: (1) This company went out of business before 1850; the fire mark was issued about 1846. It is a large, iron casting, showing an old-type fire engine with crew. The mark is distinctive by reason of its very fancy shape.

Union Insurance Company, Charleston, S.C.: (1) Founded on June 17, 1807, the company retired about 1839. The fire mark, an oval casting, tells the story of fire insurance. On one side, a building in flames, on the other, a new building. All Charleston fire marks are rare, as the town was partially destroyed by fire on many occasions between 1700 and 1900.

Mutual Insurance Company, Charleston, S.C.: (1) Issued about 1798; an oval, iron casting, the mark shows a guardian angel hovering over a city, sprinkling water on fire. First iron fire mark made in America.

United States Insurance Company of Baltimore, Md.: (1) Issued in 1834; oblong, almost square, iron casting.

Fire Insurance Company of New Orleans, La.: (1) This mark has, in both design and initials, a most striking resemblance to the mark of the Fire Association of Philadelphia. Oval, iron casting, issued in 1806, a year after the founding of the company.

Mobile Fire Department Insurance Company, Mobile, Ala.: (1) Company founded in 1866; retired in 1879. The mark is an iron casting showing a fireman's hat and company's initials in raised letters.

Baltimore Equitable Society, Baltimore, Md.: (1) The first fire mark of this company, issued in 1794, was handmade of tile on wood. No specimen of this mark has been found. (2) Issued about 1795. The iron casting of the clasped hands is mounted on the original wooden plaque. (3) Issued about 1820; iron casting on a wooden plaque. Index finger on the hand is much longer than in any other marks put out by this company. Cuffs are more pronounced and lacy than in the issue of 1795. Probably many valuable specimens were lost in the great Baltimore fire of 1904.

Mutual Insurance Company of Washington County, Hagerstown, Md.: (1) Issued in 1847. Iron casting, oblong with raised border. Shows hands clasped and raised initials of company.

Associated Firemen's Insurance Company of Baltimore, Md.: (1) Issued in 1848; of cast iron with rounded oval edge, very large and heavy. Mark shows a fireman blowing a horn and holding a burning brand.

Firemen's Insurance Company of Baltimore, Md.: (1) Mark, issued about 1840. Wheels of pumper have twelve spokes. Loop at top for hanging is plain. (2) Largest mark, issued about 1855. Loop at top for hanging is plain and round. Wheels of pumper have six spokes.

Firemen's Insurance Company of the District of Columbia: (1) Issued about 1838. Large, thick, iron casting, very heavy. Very similar to mark of the Firemen's of Baltimore, above.

Hartford County Mutual Fire Insurance Company: (1) Issued in 1831; made of tin, it is oval and convex.

Clay Fire and Marine Insurance Company, Newport, Ky.: (1) Issued in 1789; odd-shaped, iron casting.

Associated Firemen's Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pa.: (1) Issued about 1851; cast iron, showing a standing figure of a fireman, fully equipped, blowing a horn. In his left hand is a wrench for tapping the fire plug.

Penn Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pa.: (1) Issued in 1841; it is of cast iron, showing the bust of William Penn.

Firemen's Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pa.: (1) Issued in 1834; it is an oblong, iron casting showing an old fire engine.

Western Mutual Fire and Marine Insurance Company, St. Louis, Mo.: (1) Issued in 1857; oval mark, showing clasped hands and name of company in raised letters.

Franklin Insurance Company, St. Louis, Mo.: (1) Issued in 1855; made of zinc. Has the name of the company and city on it.

Laclede Mutual Insurance Company, St. Louis, Mo.: (1) Issued in 1859; small, oval, tin mark. Light in weight, name of company in raised letters, clasped hands in center.

Washington Mutual Insurance Company, Boston, Mass.: (1) Issued in 1844; made of brass, oblong with raised border. Size 8 1/2' x 4 1/4'.

Protection Mutual Fire Insurance Company, Thomaston, Maine: (1) Issued in 1849; an oval, tin plate with the company's initials shown.

Insurance Company of Florida, Jacksonville, Fla.: (1) Issued in 1841; entirely of wood. Bears the letters "LF." in high relief.

Mutual Assurance Company of New York City: (1) Issued 1787; of heavy tin, oval in shape. Painted black with "Mutual Assurance" in gilt letters. Number of the policy on a space beneath. (Only two specimens are extant today.)

Niagara District Mutual Fire Insurance Company, Niagara Falls, N.Y.: (1) Issued in 1836; a small, heavy, iron casting with very prominently raised, clasped hands. The name of the company runs around the edge of the mark, forming a border. Date of founding of company is also given.

Milwaukee Mechanics', Milwaukee, Wis.: (1) Issued in 1853; oval, iron casting with beaded edge, name of company showing plainly on front in raised letters.

Home Insurance Company, New Haven, Conn.: (1) Company lasted from 1859 to 1871. The fire mark is a thick, iron casting of oval shape. It shows the figure of a fireman and an old-time fire engine and plug in bold relief.

Protection Fire Insurance Company, Charleston, W.Va.: (1) Exact date of the organization of this company is not known; it went out of business in 1894 and undoubtedly was an old company. The mark is an oblong, iron casting showing raised eagle and name of company. A few years ago a large portion of Charleston was destroyed by fire, and many of these marks were lost.

Citizens' Fire, Marine and Life Insurance Company, Wheeling, W.Va.: (1) Issued in 1856; very odd-shaped casting, with name of company in raised letters.

Peabody Fire and Marine Insurance Company, Wheeling, West Va.: (1) Issued in 1869; a heavy, iron casting; fancy, oblong shape.

Perhaps, if you are lucky, you will find a fire mark similar to the ones described above or even another design which is even rarer and which might be in the $1,000 bracket.