What Are Those Little Shields Above the Doorways of Philadelphia Homes?

If you’ve walked around Philadelphia’s older neighborhoods, you’ve probably seen the medallions affixed to the front of older houses. Some have four hands, clasping each other at the wrist. Some have a tree or a little wagon. These are fire insurance marks, used to identify the houses insured by each company.

Fire insurance in this country started in the 18th century. Because Philadelphia was so awesome back then, many of the most successful early attempts at fire insurance happened here, and each insurance company developed a very distinctive logo.

There are a lot of stories circulating about Philadelphia’s fire marks. Some say that the volunteer fire companies wouldn’t put out a fire unless there was a fire mark on the building, indicating that the building was insured. Many historians have expressed doubt about this story and there appears to be a lack of documentation, although there is good evidence that this kind of thing took place in England. At least one fire insurance company in the Philadelphia area gave monetary rewards to the fire company who arrived at a fire first, stoking the rivalry between the firefighters.

Photo: Virginia C. McGuire

Photo: Virginia C. McGuire

In the 19th century, early fire companies fought turf wars against other fire companies, and were closely allied with street gangs. There are stories of rival companies setting ambushes for each other–lighting fires in another company’s territory and attacking them when they showed up to fight the fire.

The rivalries were tied in with ethnic tensions in the city: Some fire companies were white Protestant, some were Irish, and so on. As far as we know, there were no black fire companies in Philadelphia during the 19th century. (For more on the street violence associated with Philadelphia’s early fire companies, see Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White.)

Fire marks ultimately served a very simple purpose–they advertised the insurance company. Now they are simply picturesque, a reminder that Philadelphia’s history is rich and that Philadelphians will not easily allow it to be torn down or painted over.

Keep your eye out for the following fire insurance marks on buildings around the city, and let us know in the comments if you find any others:

* The Philadelphia Contributionship was founded in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin and some of his cronies. Their insignia is the four hands clasping each other’s wrists. The Contributionship still exists in another form today, owned by the same company that owns the ubiquitous Vector Security.

* The Mutual Assurance Company was founded in 1784 in response to the Contributionship’s decision not to insure any building with trees near it. The Mutual Assurance Company’s fire mark is a tree, to indicate their willingness to insure properties with trees on them. The company was often called the Green Tree.

* The Insurance Company of North America began writing fire insurance policies in 1794. Their fire mark has an eagle on it, and their building still stands at 16th and Arch.

* The Fire Association of Philadelphia’s mark is a vertical oval with a snake-like fire hose on it.

* Germantown Mutual Fire Insurance Company’s fire mark shows two hands clasped in a handshake.

* United Firemen’s Insurance Company shows a pumper, an early fire truck. This company’s marks often had the letters U and F.