The iron plates hanging in Erie Insurance's Home Office were stamped out before the Alamo was memorable. They’re fire marks, and they’re some of the most tangible evidence we have of American insurance history.
H.O. Hirt, Erie Insurance’s cofounder, collected the black, cast iron marks and displayed them in his office during his tenure at the company (1925-1976). Seven of them are now included in the Home Office display, along with a picture of H.O. and a short article about fire marks.
“H.O. was a historian with a special interest in American history and architecture,” says Ann Klahr, information resources specialist and archivist for Erie Insurance's corporate library, "and his fire mark collection is a reminder of our history as an industry."
These marks were used by early insurance companies to indicate that a particular house or building was insured. Some sources claim that fire brigades wouldn’t douse a house that wasn’t marked, but the Fire Mark Circle of the Americas suggests that this is inaccurate.
The primary benefit of a fire mark was actually as advertisement. It signified both the expansiveness of the insurance company, and the good sense and security of the homeowner. As cheaper and more effective methods of advertisement became available, however, fire marks diminished.
Among H.O.’s fire marks, and currently stored in Erie Insurance’s archive, is the mark issued to Erie Insurance Exchange in 1956 by the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. The Philadelphia Contributionship was founded in 1752 by Ben Franklin (see "A Brief History" below) and was the first American fire insurance company. The mark was issued to Erie Insurance when the Contributionship insured the building.
The fire marks on display are:
- The United Firemen’s Insurance Company of Philadelphia, Pa. (c. 1875)
- The Union Fire Insurance Company of Nashville, Tenn. (1870-1873)
- The Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire, Philadelphia, Pa. (1784-1827)
- The Baltimore Equitable Society, Md. (c. 1845)
- Lumbermen’s Insurance Company of Philadelphia, Pa. (1873)
- The Fire Association of Philadelphia, Pa. (c. 1863)
- The Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire, Philadelphia, Pa. (c. 1827)
What Do Those Fire Marks Mean?
Fire marks — and fire insurance — date back to the Great Fire of London, in 1666.
As British insurance companies sprang up in response to the conflagration, each assembled its own fire brigade. The brigades used fire marks to determine whether they were responsible for extinguishing the house in question.
The idea was brought to the United States when Ben Franklin started the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire in 1752. America already had public volunteer fire brigades, so the marks weren’t needed to spur firefighters into action, but they did serve as proof of insurance for the homeowner and advertising for the company.
The use of fire marks declined sharply after 1850, but some companies still use them today for marketing purposes.