The mysterious plaque affixed to fire escapes

An Ephemeral reader sent in this photo of the plaque on her fire escape. It carries a stern warning: “Notice: Any one placing any ? ? on this balcony will be fined ten dollars.” 

I once lived in an old walkup with a fire escape with the same plaque, and I’ve seen them in other apartments as well. 

fireescapeplaque

According to a 1905 guide the reader dug up called Birdseye’s Revised Statutes, Codes and General Laws of the State of New York, all fire escape balconies had to sport this plate, which is supposed to read “Any one placing any encumbrance on this balcony shall be fined ten dollars.”

Does anyone know if this law was inspired by a specific tragedy? Residents back then, crammed into small apartments, must have routinely stored stuff on their fire escapes. The result: They couldn’t get out during a fire—and firefighters couldn’t get in to save them. 

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24 Responses to “The mysterious plaque affixed to fire escapes”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Wow, that rusted plaque was on my Lower East Side fire escape too, was so used to it never thought what significance it may have had. But I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough…

  2. marstokyo Says:

    I don’t know, but I do know people would put mattresses out there and sleep on the fire escapes.

  3. Ian Schoenherr Says:

    Apparently, it became a law on April 12, 1901 – at least I hope I got the facts straight!

    ——-
    Tenement House Act, Laws of 1901, Chapter 334, Section 12, Subdivision 9

    Painting.— All the parts of such fire-escapes shall receive not less than two coats of paint, one in the shop and one after erection. All fire-escape balconies shall contain a plate firmly fastened to the standards or filling-in bars near the top railing in front of and facing at least one window in each apartment using such balcony, such plate to contain in plain, large, prominent, raised letters, each letter to be not less than one-half an inch in length, the following words: “Any one placing any encumbrance on this balcony will be fined ten dollars.” The lettering on such plates shall be painted with a paint of a color different from that used on the body of the plate so that the letters will be prominent and distinct.
    ——-

    And FYI (from the same Act):

    “A tenement house is any house or building, or portion thereof, which is rented, leased, let or hired out, to be occupied, or is occupied as the home or residence of three families or more living independently of each other, and doing their cooking upon the premises, or by more than two families upon any floor, so living and cooking, but having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, water-closets or privies, or some of them.”

  4. Ian Schoenherr Says:

    The Windsor Hotel fire in March 1899 seems to have emboldened legislators to craft more stringent fire-escape laws.

  5. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Found more on that…very interesting…as all NY sites are

    http://www3.gendisasters.com/new-york/7971/new-york-city-ny-fire-windsor-hotel-mar-1899

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks for the great research! What a terrible fire–caused by a casually tossed cigarette, according to the article.

    I guess the Ephemeral reader’s landlord is violating the Tenement House Act because the letters on the plaque are not painted a different color than the fire escape. Rent strike!

  7. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Ha Ha! Probably abandoned a long time ago, I had never seen them painted a different color they were always black, muted and forgotten, and I’ve lived in NY since 1951. Good that you brought it up ;)))

  8. petey Says:

    we used to put my bicycle on the fire escape when i was young, no room for it in the apt; but the enforcement on this is stricter now.

    • petey Says:

      ps – i’ve never seen one of those plaques; is it a LES thing?

      • PizzaBagel Says:

        Nope, we have them out here in the “sticks” in Queens. Both the apartment I grew up in, in Woodside, and the one in which I now live, in Sunnyside, had the exact same plate affixed to the bars of the fire escape. In neither case was the lettering ever painted in a different color than that of the body of the plate. And with so many coats of paint over the years, the lettering becomes less embossed with respect to the background, making it very difficult to read, even up close.

  9. wildnewyork Says:

    Mine was in the West Village, in Patchin Place. I don’t know where the one in the photo is located.

  10. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Had them at 13th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I thought they were all over the city but they must have died down when the fire was forgotten…

  11. Sean Says:

    Funny, I’ve lived for the past 30+ years in two loft buildings, and neither had this sign, as far as I know. I guess because they weren’t rented for residential use back then.

    Talking about painted fire escapes and encumbrances, a nasty neighbor called FDNY in once because I had a plant on it. FDNY said, “Just don’t have it blocking the stairs, keep it on the platform portion,”

    But then we get a summons last year because it needed painting. Cost us a few grand to get it done. Damn pesky neighbor

  12. Daniel Says:

    I have one of those on my fire escape but I was wondering if that sign had any Value?

  13. suzie Says:

    does anyone know if these signs are worth anything? how can i find out? thanks for thehelp

  14. tom Says:

    I’d be willing to pay $25.00 as is for those plaques.

    Plus shipping.

    They can be cut off with a hacksaw from the back. There is a
    metal bar that goes around/through the fire escape. E-Z to do.

    Email me… Tomvici@yahoo.com

  15. Hector Says:

    It’s lame that the above commentor is encouraging the removal of the plaques and then selling them for a profit. Why not let them stay where they are so history buffs in the future can enjoy them as we are today. And why not delete his free advertisement?

    Love your blog by the way!

  16. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks! I agree with you that the signs should not be removed, but I have faith that the people reading this blog aren’t going to hack off these signs for a measly $25.

  17. Fire Escape Plaques in Ditmas Park | Ditmas Park Corner Says:

    […] “Any one placing any encumbrance on this balcony shall be fined ten dollars,” says the plaque on the fire escape outside of neighbor Sarah Jenny’s apartment. She sent in the photo and did a little searching to learn some details from Ephemeral New York. […]

  18. lily Says:

    just moved into a new place in Greenpoint and was wondering about this – thanks for the info!

  19. steve taylor Says:

    I lived in the Bronx back in the early 50’s and our fire escape had the same wording on the sign but the sign’s shape was slightly different. Ha! Ten dollars! What’s the fine now in 2016-7?

  20. All the ways to use a tenement fire escape | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] First, storage. For large families sharing two or three rooms in a typical old-law tenement flat, fire escapes functioned as kind of a suburban garage or mud room, even though by 1905, clutter was outlawed. […]

  21. bob Says:

    few comments re firescape sign. i also never saw letters painted different than the main sign, probably the law is still on the books-whts fine today if even enforced (i doubt), had bldg in bx built 1930shad sign-lastly i do not think i ever saw or ppayed attention toit but were the signs ever placedon firescapes that had no opening for stairs up or down they were like a firescape to no where. another lastly that came to mind-in todays i guess politically correct, what laguage would be used on the sign-ten of the worlds prominent laguages-the prodominant language of the bldgs tenants-what about the people today and yesteryear who did not read the langue on the sign which back then as far as i know on the signs was english-today if the sign is not in your language and you get a summons-i smell dismissal time as a defense – how could i have read and understood it.

    • Steve Tepper Says:

      The sign attached to the fire escapes read: “Anyone placing an encumbrance on this balcony will be fined Ten Dollars.” Back in the 1950’s I was a kid living with my family in a five story apartment house in the Bronx. Our 5th floor apartment had a fire escape with that sign. All apartments with a fire escape had to have that sign.

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