A Lesson In Firefighting History

Robert Siegel speaks with Mark Tebeau, an urban historian at Cleveland State University, about the history of fire marks in the United States. Fire marks indicated whether a homeowner was insured for fire protection. Tebeau is also the author of Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America.

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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 didnt have a sign up showing that you were insurance the fire brigade would let your house burn down.

Well, Im now joined by urban historian Mark Tebeau of Cleveland State University.

And, Professor Tebeau, I gather that you are now going to throw cold water on that story that I've known for so long.

Professor MARK TEBEAU (Department of History, Cleveland State University): Sadly, Robert, I am. Thats 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: But, as you say, the insurance company in question and their fire marks, their signs were quite distinctive and quite elaborate. I've seen one that was two hands clasped, another is four hands clasped making a square of wrist, a tree, a fire engine. The company in question might make an award to the fire brigade that actually succeeded in putting out the fire.

Prof. TEBEAU: They very well might have. And chances are they would have already funded the fire company via a subscription. So the fire company itself would have received a hundred or $200 as a donation from that insurance company.

SIEGEL: Now, I read this today - and you tell me if there's any truth to it -that sometimes competitive fire brigades in their zeal to be the one to put out fire, maybe to get an award or be backed by an insurer, might actually have played a little defense against another competing fire company.

Prof. TEBEAU: Yeah. They would race to the fires. This reflected community tensions of the era, as well as a sort of manly pride in being first not only to get to the scene, but first to put the fire out.

SIEGEL: Now, this was typically pre-Civil War in America. How is it that the nation's first municipal fire department was in Cincinnati, Ohio?

Prof. TEBEAU: Well, my work is largely about Philadelphia and this story was true in nearly every city, where fire insurance companies really wanted more regular fire protection. They no longer trusted the volunteer fire companies and really pushed for a more formal paid occupation, just as you might see in a factory of the same period.

SIEGEL: So this was a case of professionalization of an activity that had been a voluntary expression of communal goodwill and manliness, as you say, before that.

Prof. TEBEAU: Absolutely. And one of the ways fire insurance companies did this is by encouraging the use of new technologies, like steam engines, which, ironically, the firefighters themselves wanted, because their ability to use and command and create technology was part of their expression of community spirit.

SIEGEL: When you heard about this story in Tennessee and the man whose house burnt down, whats your reaction to it in terms of the history of fire brigades in the U.S.?

Prof. TEBEAU: Well, fire brigades in the United States, early in the 19th and the late 18th century, really emerged using the iconography of the early republic - all the political symbols of the day. Those symbols indicated their commitment to public service, their vision of a community of Americans.

And what surprised me in the Tennessee case is that that whole iconography from the early republic seems to have been lost in this sense of quid quo pro - if you give me money, I will protect you.

SIEGEL: Yeah. That eagle in one of those fire marks that I've seen, thats no coincidence. Thats the American eagle we're looking at.

Prof. TEBEAU: Not at all. In fact, the use Lady Liberty, as a way of expressing both political identity but also commitment to the polity, is a powerful motif thats repeated again and again across the United States in the 19th century.

SIEGEL: Well, Mark Tebeau, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. TEBEAU: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Thats Mark Tebeau of Cleveland State University, author of the book "Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America."

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