Fire insurance marks were metal plaques marked with the emblem of the insurance company which were affixed to the front of insured buildings as a guide to the insurance company’s fire brigade. These identification marks were used in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the days before municipal fire services were formed.
Subscribers paid firefighting 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 firefighting 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.
Firefighting used to be a private for-profit industry. In the 1800’sin cities like New York and Baltimore, there were private “clubs” or “gangs” who were in charge of putting out fires. The infamous Boss Tweed started his illustrious political career at a volunteer fire company. The first club at the scene got money from the insurance company and sometimes loot. So, they had an incentive to get there fast. They also had an incentive to sabotage competition. They also often ended up getting in fights over territory and many times buildings would burn down before the issue was resolved.
These historic c. 1850 buildings on Washington Place, between 6th and 7th Avenues, have fire insurance marks.
Fire Mark at 108 Washigton Place, NYC 5/29/2016
These two c. 1899 buildings (stable and studio) are on West 4th Street on the other side of the fire marked buildings.