Myth #146: In early America, firefighters wouldn’t put out a house fire unless the building bore a fire insurance plaque.

Legend in Charleston, SC, and other cities says that a fire company would not put out a house fire unless there was a marker on the building proving that fire insurance had been paid. This is a myth.

I want to acknowledge Stephen Herchak, president of the Charleston Tour Association (a group representing over one hundred tour guides), and Dr. Nic Butler, archivist and historian for the Charleston County Public Library system for their research on this subject. Everyone who looked into this topic found the legend highly improbable. According to Herchak: “This never made sense to me, given the great threat a burning structure poses to the rest of the city, and as you’re probably most likely aware, here in Charleston there were numerous disastrous fires (the Great Fire of 1740, as does all other Charleston fires, pales in comparison to the fire of 1861, but, nonetheless, it destroyed more than 300 buildings and bankrupted the first fire insurance company in America, established here more than a dozen years before the one organized by Franklin, who’s widely and erroneously given credit — there’s another myth buster topic for you — for organizing the first fire insurance company in America).” 

Dr. Nic Butler concurs.In my extensive research on a wide variety of topics in early Charleston history, examining primary source materials like old newspapers, colonial and post-colonial government records, and the like, I have not found any description or reference to the purpose of these plaques or marks or markers, whatever you call them. The idea that a fire-fighting company would NOT extinguish fires on buildings without markers simply defies logic. In a densely-built urban environment like Charleston or any other town, every fire, large or small, endangered the safety of the entire community. The notion of NOT fighting a blaze simply because the house was not insured is so utterly irresponsible that it could not have been tolerated.

“As early as 1785, the City of Charleston had a fire ordnance that levied a substantial fine on anyone who refused or neglected to assist in the fighting of any fire, or who impeded the fighting of a fire. The city’s fire ordinance was updated and revised over the years, but the mandate for citizens to assist in the fighting of all fires remained constant. A perusal of the fire reports in the newspapers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston shows that fire companies and citizens in general responded consistently and promptly to battle any blaze, whether it was at the home of a rich family or of an enslaved family. Every fire endangered the lives and property of everyone.”

Fire mark, Smithsonian Museum of American History

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has fire marks in its collection, including the one pictured above, and museum literature says nothing about firefighters allowing unmarked buildings to burn down. “Beginning in the 1750s, some American insurance companies issued metal fire marks to policyholders to signify that their property was insured against fire damage. The fire marks bore the name and/or symbol of the insurer, and some included the customer’s policy number. The company or agent would then affix the mark to the policyholder’s home or business. For owners the mark served as proof of insurance and a deterrent against arson. For insurance companies the mark served as a form of advertising, and alerted volunteer firefighters that the property was insured. [my italics] The Charleston Fire Insurance Company of Charleston, South Carolina issued this fire mark in the early 19th century. The oval mark is made of iron, and consists of an inner image of intact buildings on the left, and buildings engulfed in flames on the right. A figure of Athena guards the intact buildings from the fire, and has a shield by her feet emblazoned with a Palmetto tree. There is a text above the intact building that reads, “RESTORED.” The outer rim bears the text “CHARLESTON FIRE INSURANCE COMPy.” The Charleston Fire Insurance Company operated from 1811 until 1896.”

Herchak also interviewed Henry Lowdnes, owner of C. T. Lowdnes Insurance agency and the fifth generation at an agency founded by his family in 1850, who agreed that “due to the huge threat posed by a spreading fire, it’s absolutely false that firefighters would have stood around and let a building in an urban setting burn because it didn’t bear an insurance marker.” Lowndes did provide some new information about rewards, however. “Rewards to fire fighting companies — volunteer or professionals of insurance companies — were common, both from city government for arriving first and from insurance companies for saving insured structures. In an urban setting where fires often are not limited to a single structure and entire streets or neighborhoods burned down, upon arriving at the scene of this type of blaze threatening multiple structures — which are firefighters going to first combat fire or protect — one that pays a reward or one that doesn’t? . . . But this is most likely never going to be backed by any sort of documentation other than the chance finding of a stray line in a newspaper of the time or the discovery of a personal letter mentioning and discoursing on it.”

So where does the myth originate? Could the existence of rewards in Charleston have led to the idea that firefighters might prefer an insured building over another, which could have led to the conclusion that they allowed uninsured buildings to burn? Perhaps. Or, as Dr. Butler points out, there was a practice in England which might have led to such a conclusion. In England, some fire insurance companies apparently did create their own fire-fighting units, and so fire insurance markers might have a special meaning to them. But the case is different here. The city of Charleston never had a fire-fighting company associated with any fire insurance company.” 

Dr. Butler continues, “In his book Charleston Is Burning: Two Centuries of Fire and Flames (History Press, 2009), Daniel Crooks concludes that the fire insurance markers were merely a form of advertising. In the event of fire damage, an insurance marker on a house that was later rebuilt or restored was a visible sign that the insurance company had fulfilled its pledge to protect the owner’s investment. I had several conversations with Mr. Crooks (who has a small collection of historic fire insurance markers) about this topic while he was researching for his book, and I support his conclusion that the markers–at least in Charleston–were merely a form of advertising.” 

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5 Responses to Myth #146: In early America, firefighters wouldn’t put out a house fire unless the building bore a fire insurance plaque.

  1. Tom says:

    Well, I read that the firefighting companies of yesteryear indeed did not, “stand around” doing nothing during fires. They rushed out at the first sign of fire and went to their customers’ houses and hosed those houses down so that they would not catch fire from the burning building, owned by a non-subscriber.
    As I understand it, that was the reason the citizens voted to socialize firefighting and the move was made to publicly funded fire companies.

    • Kenneth T. says:

      That’s also the way I understand it, but… if that’s truly the case, then not much has changed. Still chasing the mighty dollar, instead of helping the fellow man. Then again, if they always helped their fellow man, then no one would pay and… well, you see where I’m headed. It’s sad really. 😦

  2. Stephen Herchak says:

    Thank you for the great write up!

    Of course, it’s always necessary to have somebody like Dr Butler who can take bones of an idea and put some flesh on them with research and documentation!

    On May 13, 2017 5:07 PM, “History Myths Debunked” wrote:

    > Mary Miley posted: ” Legend in Charleston, SC, and other cities says that > a fire company would not put out a house fire unless there was a marker on > the building proving that fire insurance had been paid. This is a myth. I > want to acknowledge Stephen Herchak, presiden” >

  3. Curtis Cook says:

    A couple of years ago there was an article in our local paper about a municipal fire department somewhere in the mid-south that twice in a month allowed houses to burn because the owners had not paid their annual fire assessment. One of the home owners was particularly incensed because he tried to pay the fire captain on the spot and only received a lecture about free riders and trying to buy insurance to cover a pre-existing condition.

    Note that this was NOT fire insurance, but an annual fee similar to taxes that all homeowners in that municipality were required to pay, and these two homeowners chose not to pay and suffered the consequences. Where I live (Watertown, New York) fire coverage is part of the city taxes, but in all of the other fire districts in the county coverage is a seperate bill and is payable directly to the volunteer company that covers your area.

    In the case of the department in question, they responded to each of the fires, which were in rural areas. At one they hosed down the surrounding buildings to prevent spread, and at the other just stood by and watched, as the burning building was considered too far from any other structures to be a threat.

    I think they were being reasonable, and I failed (and still fail) to understand the outrage directed against them.

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