Side Quest: What are those mysterious shields adorning historic Lancaster buildings?

Walk around the older neighborhoods of Lancaster City, and you might spy medallions like these adorning various homes. These decorative shields indicated the resident was a member of a special club and if the building to which they were attached caught fire a private fire brigade would come to put it out. Known as “fire marks,” these plaques identified that the house was both insured and by which insurance company.

The four clasped hands is one of the earliest fire mark examples in the United States. The number listed below represents the policy number.

History of Fire Marks

The concept of fire insurance and eventually fire marks date back to 17th century London. In 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for five days in September destroying 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 homes. This tragedy led to the creation of the world’s first fire insurance policies by a private company called the “Fire Office.” In the following years, other insurance companies formed.

The 1666 Great Fire of London destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants.

Initially, these companies only provided money for the restoration or reconstruction of fire-damaged buildings. Soon fire insurance companies realized that it was cheaper to put fires out than merely pay to have homes rebuilt. This decision led to the creation of in-house fire brigades and fire marks. Insured homes affixed the fire mark to their house, and fire brigades were charged with protecting those buildings.

Fire Marks in the United States

After being established in England, it was almost another 100 years before the concept of fire insurance reached the United States. Benjamin Franklin pioneered the idea in 1752 after a devasting fire in Philadelphia destroyed stores and homes near Fishbourn’s wharf. He named the insurance company The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire insurance company. The firm eventually sold 143 policies that first year. This paved the way for other insurance companies and earned Franklin the moniker of “the father of American insurance.”

Franklin undoubtedly got the idea from his 18-month 1724 London visit while serving a printer apprenticeship. Fire insurance had become popular there by the early 1720s with one out of every 10 London houses insured.

Despite its creation in the mid-1750s, The Contributionship did not start issuing fire marks until 1791. The first one went to Anna Speakman of Arch Street in Philadelphia for policy number 2454. This early fire mark consisted of four hands clasped at the wrist attached to a rectangular board.

Early fire mark made of wood. Eventually, they were cast in lead.

Over the years different shapes for the backing were used, but the predominant form eventually settled on the shield. While the first fire marks were carved out of wood, they were later cast in lead. In addition, fire marks were brightly painted with gilded hands and black shield. The policy number would be painted below the four clasping hands. The Contributionship issued fire marks until the 1830s and then again in the early 20th century.

In addition to private fire brigades paid for by fire insurance companies, volunteer fire departments also became common in the American colonies. That practice continues today. Some fire insurers even contributed money to these volunteer departments.

Stories, Myths, & Legends

Accounts vary concerning fire marks. Some historians have stated that private fire brigades would not put out a fire unless a fire mark was on the building. In some cases, they only put out fires for structures containing their specific fire mark and not competitors. Experts have doubts about this belief or at least the regularity at which this happened.

Others have stated that fire insurance companies awarded monetary rewards to the fire company who arrived at a fire first. Such practices undoubtedly fostered deep rivalries between neighboring fire brigades. This scene from The Gangs of New York gives an idea of what these early fire fighting rivalries might have looked like.

Colonial Mansion Fire Mark

One of the oldest fire marks in Lancaster City is located on the corner of East Orange and North Shippen Street. You can find it attached to this Georgian style colonial mansion built in 1750 (1760 or in the 1780s depending on who you ask). The building has as much history as fire marks do.

The house stands on the ground initially purchased in 1749 by Quaker merchant Thomas Poultney and later sold to Dr. Christian Neff. John Passmore eventually took ownership of the property. Passmore is famous for becoming the first mayor of Lancaster after the city was chartered in 1818. He was appointed by the governor and then re-elected twice serving until 1820.

It is unclear whether Pultney or Neff had the home constructed, but whoever it was had the house build solid. Passmore was a large man tipping the scales at nearly 500 pounds. When he died at age 52 in 1827, there wasn’t a hearse in the city large enough to hold the 480-pound man and his supersized wooden coffin, so a large wagon was used to transport Passmore from his East Orange Street home to his grave. Click here to learn more about the larger than life, first mayor of Lancaster John Passmore.

Take note of the hitching post, carriage stepping stone, busybody, and sundial.

The building has several other elements of historical interest. First is the carriage stepping stone. These served as mounting blocks to help passengers climb in and out of carriages. Lancaster City has few carriage steps left today. After the transition to automobiles, most were removed.

There is also a hitching post next to the carriage stepping stone. Posts like these were used for tethering a horse to prevent it from straying.

Carriage stepping stone and hitching post.

Another neat feature is the second story busybody mirror. The busybody is visible in the previous image on the second story in the right window. The device is a collection of three mirrors hung from a window with a metal rod, arranged so that a person inside the house can see who is at the door without being seen. Some historians claim that the busybody was invented by—wait for it—Benjamin Franklin. Others believe that Franklin “invented” the busybody after seeing one in the red light district of Paris while serving as ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War. Legend also holds that Franklin used his busybody to slip out the back door when he saw his mother-in-law on his stoop.

The East Orange Street home also boasts a sundial mounted on the outside wall of the house above the front door.

If you zoom in to the left of the white lamp post, you can spot the fire mark on the corner of the building.

Have You Seen Any Fire Marks?

If you know of any other original fire marks hidden around Lancaster, comment below with the location.

Fire Marks from Great Britain and the United States



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