Abner Doubleday invented baseball.
In my youthful days, every kid with an oily glove and dreams to swat prodigious home runs balls a la Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays knew that to be true.
Turns out Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball.
But like most myths, erasing the old truth proved very difficult. It took several decades and a legion of respectable writers and historians writing about it to turn things around.
Myths are everywhere, including Alexandria. There’s one in particular that raises my eyebrow every time I hear it or read it. In fact, I heard it repeated just the other day.
It goes something like this.
The fire plaques or fire marks you see on some of the houses in Old Town indicated the homeowner had paid up their insurance with the fire company. If the fire fighters saw no marker on the home, they would not put out the fire.
I suppose this sounds plausible until you start thinking about the consequences of such a practice. A fire could easily spread to another house. In fact, in colonial days and beyond, residents and town governments feared nothing more than the destructive sweep of an out-of-hand conflagration.
Curious about it all, we went on a fact-finding mission. Here is what we found. We edited out segments for the purpose of brevity.
Wikipedia does not address the myth per se but notes that the following:
British Fire Marks
For most of the 18th century, each insurance company maintained its own fire brigade, which extinguished fires in those buildings insured by the company and, in return for a fee to be paid later, in buildings insured by other companies
By 1825, fire marks served more as advertisements than as useful identifying marks.
Subscribers paid fire fighting companies in advance for fire protection and in exchange would receive a fire mark to attach to their building. The payments for the fire marks supported the fire fighting companies. Volunteer fire departments were also common in the United States, and some fire insurers contributed money to these departments and awarded bonuses to the first fire engine arriving at the scene of a fire.
FIRE MARKS IN LONDON
The use of fire marks began in London after the Great London Fire of 1666. The first insurance company, The Fire Office, was formed in 1667, using a phoenix as their fire mark emblem. Fire marks were issued to policy holders to identify properties a company insured. Insurance companies, aiming to keep claims to a minimum, also organized their own fire brigades to put out fires and limit the amount of damage done during the process.
In London, the private fire insurance brigades only extinguished fires with the respective insurance company fire mark on the property. Private fire brigades protected London from fire until the 1860s.
FIRE MARKS IN THE UNITED STATES
In contrast to London, organized firefighting existed outside of insurance companies.
A fire mark was not needed to show a property was insured - a fire was fought whether or not a property displayed a fire mark. Most American insurance companies did not issue fire marks.
The main reason for displaying a fire mark was to advertise the insurance company and to signal that a property was insured.
Rowland G.M. Baker wrote an article with footnotes.
It is doubtful, even in the eighteenth century, if anybody could be so disinterested as to let property burn when the power lay in his hands to prevent it. There are indeed numerous instances recorded of co-operation between different brigades, and even payments from one company to another for assistance rendered by its firemen (31).
From NPR, National Public Radio
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
That story led us to check our history. Time was, fire brigades were privately organized - this was before the Civil War - and there were insurance companies with signs, or fire marks, that their clients would put up on the building. I recall hearing that in those days, if you didn’t have a sign up showing that you were insurance the fire brigade would let your house burn down.
Professor Tebeau, I gather that you are now going to throw cold water on that story that I've known for so long.
Sadly, Robert, I am. That’s largely a myth. In the 19th century in the United States, fire insurance companies did, indeed, when they sold fire insurance policies, put signs, fire marks, on the houses. Those would indicate to a fire company that the home was insured, so they may receive some reward for it. Fire companies were largely funded by their communities and also the fire insurance companies. However, the real function of the sign was more likely as advertising or to deter arson.
SIEGEL: It was like the sign that we'd see for a home security alarm system that people put up in front of their homes today.
Prof. TEBEAU: I think thats largely the case. And fire companies would have responded in the 19th century to any fire by putting it out, because fire was an exceptional danger in wood cities of that era.
SIEGEL: Thats Mark Tebeau of Cleveland State University, author of the book "Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America."
Robert M. Shea, CPCU takes on the myth.
The misconception that volunteer fire companies put out fires only on buildings that displayed a fire mark arises from the fact that some articles on fire marks do not make a distinction between the English and American relationship to fire marks.
The early English fire insurance companies originally used fire marks to identify properties they insured because each insurance company had its own fire brigade. These private insurance brigades only fought fires on properties identified by their employers’ mark or badge.
In England, the insurance companies originated before the firefighting companies. In America, it was the reverse – the volunteer fire companies were in existence before the first fire insurance company was organized. They fought fires whether or not a building displayed a fire mark.
Since fire marks were not required for a volunteer fire company to fight a fire, and a fire mark did not guarantee a reward to the volunteer fire company, one might ask, "What was the purpose of a fire mark?"
A fire mark on the house may have been the only evidence of insurance, after the insurance policy burned with all the other contents in the house. Perhaps, a mark simply stated to others that the person had enough good sense to purchase insurance. Or maybe, the agent just put it up without asking.
Fire marks served many purposes, but the main reason in America is quite simply, a fire mark was a sign that the property was insured. Both the insured and the insurance company benefited from this "advertising."
Friendship Fire Museum in Alexandria
The first firemarks were issued in London after the Great Fire of 1666 when insurance companies formed fire brigades to fight blazes on the property they insured. Each company provided its policy holders with a distinctive metal sign to hang on the front of their building. When an insurance company’s fire brigade arrived at the scene of a fire they checked for their own mark. If they found none, they would not assist with fighting the fire.
In 18th and 19th-century America, volunteer fire companies were made up of members of a community, not formed by insurance companies. Firemarks were used in some American cities, but they served as advertisements for the insurance companies and were a deterrent to arson. They also provided an incentive to volunteer fire companies, which often received rewards from insurance companies for their firefighting work. Although many of Alexandria’s old buildings feature reproduction firemarks, no evidence has been found to suggest that they were used in Alexandria during the era of volunteer firefighting.
Catherine Weinraub, a docent with the Friendship Firehouse told me:
“Fire Plaques were not used in Alexandria. While used in other large cities, there has been no proof to show they were used here. The intention of the plaque was for firemen to receive insurance money to collect a reward once a citizen’s personal effects were rescued.”
I talked with several residents of Old Town whose homes have a marker. One said she had heard and believed the "no mark, no fire service" story. Another wasn’t sure, and another said the story was not true. All three said the fire marks on their house were there when they bought it.
So, how did the myth get started?
This is an area to be explored. In 1996, Nancy L. Ross wrote an article in The Washington Post about the various types of plaques on historic houses in Alexandria. One category was Decorative, Protective.
Considered more decorative than historic. So-called firehouse plaques were originally erected in the early 19th century to policy holders of the Firemens Insurance Co. to alert fire brigades which burning buildings they should attempt to save. Different versions of the black cast-iron squares or other shapes depict old-fashioned pumpers, firemen or handshakes. Replicas can be purchased at souvenir shops.
I tried contacting the above sources but my emails were not returned. I wanted clarification on the practice in London.
In the U.S., all the evidence points to the story being a myth.
I will say the fire marks are a great way of adding some personality to these historic homes. I love looking at them and the variety.
We’ll see how folks respond. Perhaps the U.S. myth of “no fire mark, no fire service” will one day be put to rest – right there alongside Abner Doubleday and his baseballs.