Have you ever walked around downtown Frederick and looked above the doorways or windows of historic homes and seen small cast-iron plaques bearing embossed symbols, letters, and numbers (which don’t seem to be addresses), and wondered what they might mean? There are a wide variety of these markers found throughout the historic district. Some show two hands clasped in a handshake, while others may show eagles, trees, or even antique fire engines. With the absence of a written explanation on many, you may find yourself speculating.
These small plaques are called “fire marks,” prevalent in the United States from the mid-18th century into the late 19th century, and served as an indication that the house was insured against fire. The symbol on the plaque is an indication of which company insured the house, and often included the policy number or other identifying information of the company such as the year the company was founded or the company’s initials. These plaques also served as excellent marketing for the insurance companies themselves.
Fire marks originated in the late 17th century in England, issued by insurance companies that also maintained private fire brigades to respond to properties insured by that company. In the United States, the first corporation to offer fire insurance was The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, founded in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin. The contributionship’s fire mark depicts four hands clasping the others’ wrists. As a mutual aid insurance company where policyholders share in profits and losses, the use of hands bound to one another seems a fitting symbol and became a relatively common motif for such organizations.
Several different fire marks may be observed on houses in the Frederick historic district, including:
- The Mutual Assurance Company for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire, founded in Philadelphia in 1784, as the result of a rift in the membership of the Philadelphia Contributionship over the decision not to insure houses that were close to trees. The symbol used by this company, fittingly, is of a green tree on an oval plaque.
- The Insurance Company of North America, founded in Philadelphia in 1792, uses an eagle rising from a cloud on their oval-shaped fire mark.
- The Baltimore Equitable Society, founded in 1794, uses a square fire mark of two clasped hands with the year of the society’s founding beneath. The company remains the second-oldest fire insurance company in the U.S. still in business, after the Philadelphia Contributionship.
- The Fire Association of Philadelphia, founded in 1817, began issuing fire marks in 1859. The association’s fire mark was of an early barrel-shaped fire hydrant with an attached hose, and the initials “F” and “A.”
- The Firemen’s Insurance Company of Baltimore, founded in 1825, used a circular mark that depicted an antique fire engine in the center with text below reading “F.I. Co.”
- The Mutual Insurance Company of Frederick, founded in 1843, uses a fire mark similar to that of the Baltimore Equitable Society, of two clasping hands. The primary difference being that the company’s mark depicts the home’s policy number rather than the year of the company’s founding. The Frederick Mutual Insurance Company, as it is now known, is the third-oldest insurance corporation in Maryland and ninth-oldest in the United States still in operation.
- The United Firemen’s Insurance Company of Philadelphia, incorporated in 1860, first issued their oblate mark in 1878 which depicted an antique fire engine with the initials “U” and “F.”
Send us your historic preservation questions to PreservationMatters@cityoffrederick.com.