What was a fire mark?
A fire mark was a metal — or occasionally ceramic — plaque issued by an insurance company and affixed to the exterior of a property insured by said company.
But what was the purpose of a fire mark?
Ah, well, back in 1666, when the Great Fire of London swept through the city, there was no public fire brigade to fight the inferno and no available recompense for those who lost their property to the flames. Only the Church was able to offer any sort of relief.
It occurred to one Dr Nicholas Barton, MD, that the formation of a fire insurance system could be a good thing. So he established The Fire Office, which later became known as The Phenix. The Phenix began underwriting in 1680 and ceased trading in 1712. The lack of a standardised address system meant that insured properties needed to be identified, hence they were issued with fire marks. Although no fire marks from The Phenix are extant, it is known that they bore the symbol of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Housefires were fairly common back in the eighteenth century; hardly surprising given the prevalence of wood as building material and the use of open fires for cooking and heating, and candles for light. Insurance companies began to form all over the country offering policies covering fire. However, there was not much profit to be made, having to pay out compensation frequently. So they began to form fire brigades to fight the fires. Fire marks then served as an indicator for the fire brigades. If a burning house bore the fire mark of the insurance company employing the brigade, the fire was fought. If not, the brigade could walk away, or the owner might want to try to negotiate a deal.
Fire marks were issued by over 200 different insurance companies, in around 80 different designs across the UK for some 250 years. The need for fire marks gradually diminished as cities or regions formed municipal fire brigades. The first of these was Edinburgh's in 1824; London's Metropolitan fire brigade came about in 1866, but Norwich Union did not hand over control of its Worcester fire brigade to the municipal authorities until 1929. By 1941 there was a National Fire Service, rendering the UK fire mark obsolete.
That covers UK fire marks; what about US fire marks?
The US fire mark system developed in reverse to the UK one, because insurance was organised by fire brigades, rather than fire brigades being organised by insurance companies. Nevertheless, fire marks were issued to policy-holders. Why? It seems that there are three possible answers.
First: Fire marks provided evidence of insurance should the policy documentation have burnt in the conflagration.
Second: They served as an indication that the property-owner was insured. Any potential arsonists would know that the owner could not be financially penalised by burning his building to the ground.
Third: It was good advertising for the insurance companies.
The demise of the US fire mark, sometime around 1890, was probably associated with the advancement of technology. Companies were able to advertise more effectively and more cheaply than by producing fire marks, so they stopped.
Fire marks now
Some of the rarer plaques are collectors' pieces. I found a company on the internet that deals exclusively in fire marks and another devoted to collectors. However, it is not unusual to spot an original fire mark, although probably one of the more common ones, affixed above the doorway of somebody's house.
La petite mort informs me that the Chartered Insurance Institute in London has an impressive collection of fire marks in the stairwell of its head office.
Fanning the flames: