The History of the Fire Mark

Following the Great Fire of London on September 2, 1666, Fire Insurance Companies began to provide their policy holders with metal plaques that were to be affixed to insured businesses and homes. They were widely used in the eighteenth and nineteenth century before municipal fire services were formed. These plaques, cast from iron or hammered from lead, became known as fire marks. The first to use a fire mark was the Sun Fire Office, which was established in 1710. 


In both England and America, the fire mark became a symbol of protection, as it gave visual evidence that a structure was insured and identified the insuring company. Some fire brigades offered their services through paid subscriptions and issued their own identifying fire marks. 


Following an alarm, it was not uncommon for the first responding brigade, not seeing its own mark or that of an associate insurance company, to leave a fire, letting it burn until the proper brigade arrived. Some insurers would pay a fire brigade based on how much of the structure was saved. If such a company’s fire mark was displayed and they were known to pay well, the responding fire brigade would work extra hard to douse the flames. If a building did not have a fire mark the owner would indeed be in a difficult bargaining position when a fire brigade answered their alarm.  


British fire marks 

For most of the 18th century, each insurance company maintained its own fire brigade, which extinguished fires in those buildings insured by the company and, in return for a fee to be paid later, in buildings insured by other companies. By 1825, fire marks served more as advertisements than as useful identifying marks; some insurance companies no longer issued fire marks, and those that did sometimes left them up after a policy had expired. Successive combinations of fire brigades led to virtually the entire city of London being put under the protection of the London Fire Establishment, which fought not only the fires of policy holders but those of nonsubscribers, the reason being that fires in uninsured buildings could rapidly spread to insured buildings. 


American Fire Mark 

Fire Insurance has over 200 years of history in America. The early fire marks of Benjamin Franklin’s time can still be seen on some Philadelphia buildings as well as in other older American cities. Subscribers paid firefighting companies in advance for fire protection and in exchange would receive a fire mark to attach to their building. The payments for the fire marks supported the firefighting companies. Volunteer Fire Departments were also common in the United States, and some fire insurers contributed money to these departments and awarded bonuses to the first fire engine arriving at the scene of a fire.