On a quiet walk down Washington Place just east of Sheridan Square, some unusual symbols came into view.
Three of the lovely Federal-style 1830s townhouses on the south side of the street had small plaques on their facades, each with a different image and letters.
What was all this fire imagery about? These Fire marks, as they’re officially called, were produced by fire insurance companies in the 19th century.
“Possibly the latter day reader never heard of a fire mark, but they could be found on the front of many buildings in the city before 1870,” explains a 1928 New York Times article.
“Those were the days of the volunteer fire department, and the fire marks were posted by insurance companies to make known that a reward was ready for the firemen should they save the building from destruction by flames.”
“The fire mark might be a symbol cut in stone, a cabalistic iron letter or some other design of metal,” continued the Times.
Fire marks had other uses, like serving as advertising for insurance companies. They may also have “minimized the amount of damage to a property as the firefighters did their job.”
“If firefighters saw a fire mark, they may have been more careful when entering a property and extinguishing the fire,” states nycfiremuseum.org.
Plus, “a fire mark may have deterred an arsonist from maliciously destroying a property. The fire mark signaled that the owner would be compensated for damages and that law enforcement would likely attempt to find the arsonist.”
Fire marks began disappearing after 1865, when the city’s 124 volunteer engine companies, hose companies, and hook and ladder companies were replaced by the professional (and paid) Metropolitan Fire Department—which was supposed to fight fires without regard to whether the property was insured or not.
They became collectors’ items in the 20th century. “There are still a few of these fire marks embedded in the walls of byways of the old city,” wrote the Times in 1928. “Yet the extent of rebuilding on Manhattan Island must soon sweep them away.”
Were these fire marks bought at antique shops and affixed to the facades by later homeowners to give their townhouses more authenticity?
One owner I spoke to on Washington Place, who offered some backstory on these relics, believes they were put up in the 19th century.
The NYC Fire Museum maintains a photo gallery of fire marks to browse and terrific images, like this Currier & Ives depiction of a volunteer fireman in the mid-1800s.
[Many thanks to Washington Place townhouse owner and enthusiast R.R. for filling me in on the history of these remnants of 19th century New York City.]
For more about the early days of Gotham’s professional firefighters, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available for preorder now and in bookstores September 27.]