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Vintage Sleuthing: Rabbit hole dive - insurance fire mark from our colonial history

vintage sleuthing

Sometimes an object crosses our path that impels us to dig around on the internet to see if we can find out more. The internet can give you all kinds of information...if you persist until you string together the right searches. Curiosity doesn't carry a pocket watch, so once you start time stands still until you find out all you can. We call that diving down the rabbit hole. 

IMPELLING OBJECT: Brass reproduction plaque of a man with a horn and the word "fire" in tiny letters above his head

WANT TO KNOW: Who is the man and what does this plaque mean?

Here's what we found out in our rabbit hole dive:

When your smoke or carbon monoxide detector goes off, you can call 911 and the municipal fire department will appear to take charge of the situation. And after, your insurance company will send someone out to look at the damage and help  restore your life. But if you were living in 1700s and 1800s, we definitely couldn't have been so sure of those things.

Back in the early days of our country (and in the UK and Continental Europe at the same time), we didn't have municipal fire companies. You paid for insurance from a private fire brigade so if your home caught on fire, they would come battle the blaze. In order to know who was insured by what insurance company, subscribers were given cast metal fire marks to display on the outside of their home.

The mark we are selling on behalf of one of our move clients is a brass reproduction of a fire mark from Associated Firemen's Insurance Company of Baltimore. It depicts a brigade member blowing his horn and scrambling towards the fire.

american fire marks

The mark on the left is one of the original marks from the Smithsonian collection. The mark on the right is our modern reproduction in polished brass. 

As with many specialty historic items, there is a collector's club: The Fire Mark Circle of the Americas. On their site, they have an interesting and useful article about how to identify both the real deal and the knockoffs.

Philadelphia, home to Benjamin Franklin, has it's share of fire marks, including these from Franklin's own fire brigade shown in a post on Atlas Obscura

The whole fire mark plan was really an ingenious solution to a problem--fires have to be put out, fire brigades need to be paid. As our country evolved, a different system evolved. I much prefer our current system, but it's always nice to have a peek at the past.

Time spent in the rabbit hole researching: 50 minutes

Rabbit hole rating: 9/10. We knew nothing about fire marks, but we are pretty sure than the next time we wander around in one of Boston or New York's historic neighborhoods, we'll be looking for them.




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