Walking the streets of Philadelphia allows you to take a literal step back into history. A neighborhood stroll can lead you past the resting place of Benjamin Franklin and the room where the first Star Spangled Banner was sewn. The Nation's history is everywhere and often hidden in plain site.
Head to Philadelphia’s Old City and Society Hill Neighborhoods, find a beautiful street lined with brick townhomes and look up, between the second and third floors you may see a small plaque, easily missed if not deliberately searched for. This is a historic Philadelphia Fire Mark.
Fire Marks originated in Great Britain and were used to indicate if a home was insured and were specific to each insurer. They were critical in the times before public fire units as they would help the private fire company that was provided by insurers identify if the house was covered. The plaque represented the insurer and the policy number of the home owner.
The Philadelphia Contributionship was the first insurance company in the United States, and a public fire department was already in place at their formation. Yet fire marks found new uses in Early America. The plaque was used to mark houses that were covered by the Contributionship, and although the fire department was a public service offered without restrictions, it would help act as an identifier for the fire company in a time when the address system and street numbers could be vague.
The fire marks also worked as a crime deterrent. The Contributionship was a mutual company meaning that policyholders and shareholders shared in the losses resulting from covered exposure. With these marks in place the Contributionship felt that it would deter citizens from committing crimes on these properties, such as arson, and encourage neighbors that were policyholders to help fight fires in the neighborhood.
The firemark was of four hands clasped in a circle, and were required to be visible on any covered house for almost a hundred years. Today they are still given to long time customers of the Contributionship as a customer loyalty gift.
Original fire marks are still visible on many of the oldest streets in Philadelphia.
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