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

May 13, 2017

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.” 


Myth # 145: It was the custom to bury old shoes in a new building for good luck.

December 17, 2016

 

Susan Smyer wondered about the custom of burying a shoe in the walls or foundation of a house. For good luck? To ward off evil spirits? Is this a myth?

Not a myth. There is ample documentation for this practice at various times and in various cultures. It seems people did and still do put a shoe in the walls or foundation of a building, probably in order to ward off bad luck or bring good luck. According to June Swann, a footwear historian and keeper of the boot and shoe collection at the Northampton Museum in England who began studying concealed shoes in 1957, the practice has been reported in Germany, France, Australia, and the New England states of America. A few examples date from the 15th century, after which the practice appears to have become more common. It peaked in the 19th century and has fallen away since the 1930s. According to Ms. Swann, most of the shoes are well-worn, utilitarian sorts, and nearly half belonged to children. (To read more, click HERE.)

However, Marc Carlson, Librarian of Special Collections at the University of Tulsa who has compiled references of shoe-related superstitions at www.personal.utulsa.edu/%7Emarc-carlson/shoe/RESEARCH/CONCEALED/shoestuff.htm, warned in 2008 about making unwarranted assumptions on this topic: “. . . there is an increasingly common modern assumption that shoe concealments are intended for a superstitious or ritual, so we should look at a wide variety of actual superstitious and ritual practices regarding shoes. My personal position is that we don’t know why these items were concealed in walls way back when, and it’s sloppy to assume that they all were for ritual reasons (which is where this trend is currently heading). Some may well have been, others likely were not. Since the idea was first proposed by June Swann back in the 60s, the idea that they were ritual deposits has certainly influenced the reasons why people are currently depositing shoes, as well as the assumptions about the past.” 

I acknowledge Mr. Carlson’s warning against over-generalizing, but my own view is that most instances of shoes in the wall were prompted by superstition. 

 

 


Revisited Myth #104: Front doors were built extra wide so that a coffin could fit through. These were called coffin doors.

October 16, 2016

Jenna Peterson, the assistant curator and educator at Schenectady County Historical Society, wrote, “I’ve recently started working at a museum, and heard my docents telling visitors about our “coffin door.” According to my docents, who have no idea where the idea came from originally but were told it by another docent who was told by another docent, the door was built as wide as it was so that a coffin could fit through it. Is this a complete myth, or something I’m just not aware of? I’ve not done a tremendous amount of research into historic architecture, but what I have done has made no mention of coffin doors. I’d love to see it validated or busted!”

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The easiest thing to do, when confronted by a suspicious statement, is to ask, “What is the documentation for that?” Then you might suggest that, until they can prove the authenticity of the statement, they should leave it out of their tour commentary.

I checked with a couple of my favorite architectural historians on this one, even though I was all but certain a “coffin door” was related to the “coffin corner” myth (see Myth #58: Niches called coffin corners were built into staircases to allow people to carry a casket downstairs and turn the corner.”) Ed Chappell, an architectural historian who is Director of Architectural Research at Colonial Williamsburg, says succinctly, “I think the idea is dreamed up.”

Senior Architectural Historian and author Carl Lounsbury goes into more detail, calling this myth one of those “foolish things that gets passed along.” And he explains why.

“As to wide doors in houses, most were primary entrance doors–either double doors and slightly wider single-leaf doors ranging from around 3 feel 2 inches to about 5 or 5 1/2 feet . . . Their size–height and width were symbolic of their importance as main entrances. However, few doors inside the house were wider than three feet—usually 2 feet 8-10 inches into main rooms, smaller for closets. Now, if the tellers of tales would only think about it, the only place especially wide coffins could go would be through the main doors, which perhaps led into a room, but often into a passage. If the coffins were especially wide, they would not fit through secondary doors leading into parlors where most of the dead were laid out. What little I know about early wooden coffins suggests that they were no wider the width of a person’s shoulders. I am fairly large–my shoulders measure about two feet in width. Add an inch here or there for fitting the body in the box and the inch on each side for the board width and you get a coffin about 2 ½ feet in width at its widest. But the point is, nobody ever designed houses with funereal prospects in mind. They were designed for the ease and comfort of someone entering and leaving a room (upright) and, as noted above, in just proportion to the hierarchical significance of the space being entered: exterior doors, public room doors, secondary room door, and subsidiary space doors. I am not sure why otherwise intelligent people seem to embrace these preposterous notions. I have heard it hundreds of times in descriptions of various features in buildings: like cross and bible doors—Really? on Moses Myers [a Jewish merchant] House in Norfolk? I rarely try to correct them anymore, but simply ignore the blather.”

Boston Gazette 1770 detail showing coffins

Boston Gazette 1770 detail showing coffins

Historic house administrators can’t just ignore the blather (much as they’d like to!), because they have to deal with docents and guides who may be passing along myths like this one. Letting these things slide only gives them credibility.

 

Previously posted comments:

Hammond-Harwood House says:
January 17, 2013 at 10:14 am (Edit)
I think that one of the reasons myths about coffins remain so prevalent is that they’re a good segue into stories about ghosts, which are always popular.

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Melissa says:
January 17, 2013 at 12:41 pm (Edit)
Booyah! LOVE your blog! It’s always so helpful. 🙂

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Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
Thanks for the compliment!

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Janet K. Seapker says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:28 pm (Edit)
Wilmington, NC horse-drawn carriage drivers claim that double doors were used to allow women with hoop skirts to get easily through the front door. Carl’s argument could be used to respond to this one too.

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Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Horse-drawn carriage drivers are BIG myth spreaders! So are ghost tour conductors and bus tour guides. They are not really in the education business; they are in the entertainment business where anything goes. The sexier, scarier, funnier, or cuter it is, the better.

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PJ Curran says:
January 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm (Edit)
Beg your pardon Mary, but as a Tour Guide I take my responsibility for historical accuracy, education, and entertainment very seriously. I have heard but not used the coffin theory. I have also heard but not used the width of women’s dresses as a reason for the wide doorways. This one would probably not stand up either. Obviously women also found it necessary to navigate interior doorways.
PJ Curran
Greater Boston Tour Guide

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Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 3:45 pm (Edit)
That’s terrific. There are certainly many conscientious tour guides out there, but in general, the purpose of carriage ride tours and ghost tours and those city bus tours where you hop on and off and hear the patter between stops is not education but entertainment. Those “guides” aren’t given much training and little supervision; in many cases the script they are handed is little more than a string of jokes and myths. I’m sorry if you thought I was slandering all bus tour guides! Keep up the good work.

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Pam says:
January 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm (Edit)
Having trained tour guides for 14 years, followed by training docents and part time staff…nothing succeeds like….not success…but REPEATED myth. (and one of the most popular had to do with the Hammond Harwood House above!!!) The “hand me down” information is constant battle. We used to send new tour guides out with old ones….sure way to perpetuate this kind of stuff. I’m not sure about the segue, Allison…I think it’s that some things are deemed to be “the inside scoop.” But…hey…they were shorter back then, yes?!? They seem to have been narrower, too!!!!!

Pam Williams

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Daud Alzayer says:
January 19, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
One of the classic red flags to a history myth is any story that emphasizes the “nasty, brutish and short” vision of the past.

The idea that houses would be designed with coffins in mind is really hinting at a larger narrative- that constant death was a fact of life in (insert any time period here).

PS- I was quite tickled to see the Boston Massacre coffins, since I work at the Boston Massacre site (Old State House)

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Robert Hansen says:
January 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm (Edit)
I once owned a house in Bridgewater, CT., bulit in 1812, that had a side door, not the main entrance door, that led directly into the living room. It was wider than the principal entrance door and did not have steps entering into it that would make it useful as a day to day entrance. In addition all the accessory buildings were on the other side of the house. And of course it was referred to as a coffin door. Go figure.

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Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:45 am (Edit)
My guess is that someone once said in passing, “I’m so glad we can fit Uncle Charlie’s coffin through the front door!” (or around the bend in the stairs.) Perhaps it happened with several Uncle Charlies. Eventually that got passed on to be the myth that we know today. (Or at least we know it now thanks to your blog!)

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Jenna Peterson says:
April 26, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
Thanks so much for answering my question, sorry I wasn’t able to get you a photo of the doors!

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Ginger Mattingly says:
April 12, 2015 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
If you research “casket door” and Victorian house or 1800s there are several stories about it. I don’t know if it is true or not. I have heard of “casket doors,” but never called “coffin” doors. Funerals were held in the home back in the 1800s.

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Mary Miley says:
April 12, 2015 at 9:14 pm (Edit)
Casket . . . coffin . . . must be the same thing.

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Jennifer Taylor says:
August 21, 2015 at 7:28 am (Edit)
So what if they referred to them as coffin doors? I mean it doesn’t make the home it’s attached to haunted. Many people died at home in olden days. The front door was taken off its henge (very easily removed with a whack at the metal rod between) . I heard this before, even mentioned on HGTV specifically “American Renovation”. Why would you attempt to
Cover up or lessen credit to history? Using a door to carry a coffin doesn’t glamorize a home nor demoralize the people that lived there either. People are people. Often using what they had and “making do” was what this country was built on. You can’t change history or cover it up.

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Paul Boat-Kuharic says:
July 31, 2016 at 6:50 pm (Edit)
Just show proof that coffin, or casket, doors are real and the post would be pointless, Jeniffer Taylor. False, baseless history should always be debunked.

Reply


Revisited Myth # 81: Jefferson invented the triple-sash window when he was in France to avoid the French door tax.

April 17, 2016

dscn3448_011

Virginia Mizel, Director of the Edmondston-Alston House in Charleston, SC, asked: “Was there ever a door tax in the South as there was in France? We have heard Thomas Jefferson invented the triple sash window to avoid a door tax while he was ambassador to France. Some southern tour guides state the door tax was also in place in here, which is why many homes from the 1800s have triple sash exterior windows serving as both door and window.”

Thomas Jefferson is credited with many inventions, but the folks at Monticello have been able to identify only one: a moldboard plow. He did not invent the triple-sash window. The original sash window originated in the 1600s. Jefferson did incorporate triple-sash windows on the first floor of his home, Monticello. These could be opened like a window or used as a door. (Another problem with the statement is that, although Jefferson did live in France for several years, he did not build any houses there.)

So any relevance to French door taxes is moot. If there was a tax on doors in France in former days, would someone please let me know? I have it on good authority that there is no such tax today. (A reader wrote that there was a door tax in France that was abolished in 1926 but I couldn’t verify that.) 

As for door taxes in America, see Myth #1 on closet taxes, #11 on wardrobe taxes, #30 on mirror taxes, #75 on window taxes, and #78 on second-story taxes. If anyone–tour guide or guest–mentions a door tax, ask him/her to specify the colony or state and point to the legislation. I cannot find any examples.


Revisited Myth # 80: Slaves were made to whistle as they walked between the kitchen and the house carrying food, to make sure they didn’t sample the food on the way.

April 10, 2016
Tuckahoe Plantation kitchen and walkway

Tuckahoe Plantation kitchen and walkway

The “Whistle Walk” story is related at many Southern plantations where the kitchen is located apart from the main house. It is an imaginative tale, but one with little logic to support it and no actual documentation. Let’s face it, the slaves who cooked and prepared food in the detached southern kitchens could easily have (and surely did) tasted and eaten the food inside the kitchen without anyone being the wiser. 

One historian who spent her life researching topics involving women’s work and home life wrote in 1986 that she had never found any contemporary references that the walkways connecting outside kitchens with inside dining rooms were called “whistle walks.” The earliest known written reference comes in 1954 in the book, Shadows in Silver: A Record of Virginia 1850-1900 in Contemporary Photographs, where a picture of a plantation kitchen from the 1890s carries a caption that mentions the story.

“I suspect the story is apocryphal,” wrote late Patricia Gibbs, “or perhaps depicts a mid-to-late nineteenth-century practice. Certainly if it really occurred, it was never so widespread as interpretations in many southern historic house museums imply. On the other hand, I think it is quite likely that food en route to the dining rooms was occasionally sampled. Since there is much reliable information to convey about foods and serving practices, I would discourage repeating this story.”

Good advice.

Thanks to Bill Backus, Historic Interpreter at Ben Lomond Historic Site/Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park in Prince William County for asking about this story.

Previous comments:

Megan says:
February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am (Edit)
I never thought this story made sense for slaves or servants. Weren’t they the ones preparing the food in the kitchen, and could taste it there?

marymiley says:
February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm (Edit)
Excellent point. And so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it!!

Mark A. Turdo says:
February 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm (Edit)
My Italian-American father used to tell me his immigrant father made him whistle when getting wine from the cellar. It was always a cute story, but I suspect that’s all it is. Thanks for sharing this.

Michael Comer says:
April 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm (Edit)
I wonder what happened if they couldn’t whistle?

amst418 says:
October 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm (Edit)
Who is the historian you refer to in this post? I recall reading something to this effect but cannot find the source. I “googled” whistle walk and found your excellent site!

Mary Miley Theobald says:
October 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm (Edit)
The historian I referred to was Patricia Gibbs, who spent her entire career (I think) at Colonial Williamsburg and was the acknowledged authority on so many subjects, among them women’s issues. She died a few years ago, shortly after she retired, and I miss her very much. She had the answer to everything!

amst418 says:
October 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm (Edit)
Thank you for the quick reply. Indeed, it must have been Gibbs. I recently spent a month on fellowship at CW and I’m sure I came across her work there. Thanks!

amst418 says:
October 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm (Edit)
one more thing: do you know the citation for the quote? I have a ton of files that I copied while at CW. Was it from an internal report for the preservation folks?

Mary Miley says:
October 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm (Edit)
It came from a letter dated 9/2/86 that is in the Research Query file at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg.

Esther Hyatt says:
November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm (Edit)
I visited Berkley Plantation for the 51st celebration of the first Thanksgiving on November 4, 2012 and the tour guide reported the tale of the whistling slave tunnel as if historical fact. Even more interesting were the responses of the tourist agreeing that the practice was not only clever but efficient because it alerted those in the main house of their meal’s arrival. I dismissed the story as true when I couldn’t figure out how the sound would travel from underground through winter’s closed door and pierce a home constructed of several layers of brick.

 


Revisited Myth # 78: People built one-and-a-half story houses to avoid the second-story tax.

March 19, 2016

DSCN1858

There are so many myths that involve taxes–can you stand one more?

Taxes are a complicated subject–what’s new about that? In early America, most of the government’s money came from import/export duties on liquor and slaves and from port charges. Colonists paid several sorts of taxes but no income tax and only occasional taxes on real estate and personal property. The usual tax assessments due from individuals were the parish tax, which paid for churches, clergy salaries, and aid to the poor; county taxes, which paid for courthouses, bridges, and ferries; colony taxes, which paid for public officials and the capitol building; and in some colonies, the old feudal quitrent to the king, who legally “owned” all the land. (Property owners were technically only renting.) These taxes didn’t necessarily occur every year and they varied over time. Most taxes were based on the number of “tithables” in the household (white males over 16 and all slaves over 16), meaning those with the most slaves and the largest families paid the most tax.

I could find no mention of taxes on a second story in the colonies of Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Georgia, after having searched online databases of those colonies’ laws. (see http://libguides.bgsu.edu/content.php?pid=65781&sid=486039 to find links to the laws of the 13 colonies.) I plan to check the remaining colonies–a tedious task–as the week progresses, but I do not expect to find any mention of a tax on the second story.

A one-and-a-half story house is just a one-story house with a finished attic for extra living or storage space. As the director of research at Colonial Williamsburg wrote so succinctly when this myth surfaced back in 1968: “One-and-a-half stories are simply cheaper to build than two.”


Revisited Myth # 76: You can tell the age of a brick building by noting the glazed headers.

February 26, 2016
Bruton Parish Church tower built 1769

Bruton Parish Church tower built 1769

Examine the bricks and learn the date–or so says this myth. If you see glazed headers, you know the buildings was built before 1750, because a law was passed in 1750 against burning hardwood. Hardwood is necessary to make fire hot enough to glaze bricks in a kiln. (A header, by the way, is a brick turned so the short end faces out instead of the long side.)

It is not possible to date a building this way. “I have seen plenty of buildings built after 1750 with glazed bricks,” says Matthew Webster, Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Historic Architectural Resources. (see above example) It is true that hardwoods burn hotter. “Softwoods burn fast,” he says. “Hardwoods create a better and sustainable high heat.” But it is the potassium contained in hardwoods that helps the sand in the brick vitrify into glass.

“It’s not the heat necessarily that is required for glazed bricks,” explains Jason Whitehead, supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Masonry Trades and Brickyard. “It’s the potash that is released from hardwoods such as oak and hickory that then builds up on the bricks and reacts with the clay. This combo creates the glazing seen on the bricks that are making up the fire tunnels in the bottom of the kiln.”

However, the real problem here is that there was no colonial law against burning hardwoods. “I have never heard of or seen evidence of any law forbidding the burning of hardwoods in brickmaking,” says Whitehead. Hardwoods gradually became scarce in colonial America because of their desirability in both England and the colonies. From the earliest years, English colonists burned hardwood to produce potash, used in making glass, for export to England where few hardwood trees remained.


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