“What’s that thing above the door of that house?” is a question I hear often on my tours that take place in Georgetown. The question is in reference towards the small but curious metal symbols that sit above many of the doors of older Georgetown homes. They are a feature that you will also find in other cities of the mid-Atlantic, including Alexandria VA, Philadelphia PA, and Baltimore MD. I love telling people their background, so I figured I’d write a blog post explaining their meaning and origin. These objects are fire plaques, or “marks” as I’ve also heard them called. The short explanation is that they denote when someone has paid a fee for fire insurance, so that if a fire-fighting company puts out a fire the homeowner has or will be able to pay for the service. There is a pervasive myth, that I myself was guilty of propagating until I dug deeper, that if someone did NOT have one of these plaques and their house caught on fire that they were basically out of luck and their house burned down. That is not necessarily true, however. The story of these plaques is a little more complicated than that.
Back in the day, before the city universally provided fire-fighting and a public service, there were multiple private volunteer fire-engine companies. They each had different symbols, and their jurisdiction expanded into different territories. Common symbols you’ll find are four interlinked hands on wrists, a firehose circling a pump (which for a long time I thought was a snake), a double pump fire engine, and a fireman presumably running towards the scene of an inferno (see left).
This example here (right) is from the Fire Association of Philadelphia. They had members that extended all the way into Alexandria and Georgetown apparently, since their plaque appears in both (the one pictured here is in Georgetown). The Philadelphia fire company was one of the first to be formed of volunteers. It was founded in 1817 and made up of 11 volunteer fire engine companies and five volunteer fire horse companies. The equipment and firehouse were collateral should the fire company have to pay for a loss, and the model became so successful that it was copied in other cities, including Alexandria and Georgetown. There were over 40,000 fire marks made in the history of the company.
The fire mark with the Double pump engine denotes the Fireman’s Insurance Company of Baltimore, MD, which existed between 1825 and 1904. The mark depicts a double-decker hand engine that was used by firemen of the time. The company ceased to exist after the Great Fire of Baltimore destroyed most of their holdings. I recently found one of these markers for sale at the Wayne Fisher's Antique shop on Royal Street in Alexandria, and am now the proud owner. It's a thrill to own one of these parts of history.
Now, to the myth of the “insured or your house burned down.” While the marker denoted that someone had paid for the insurance, that didn’t mean that if someone’s house caught on fire and they didn’t have a marker that their house would just be left to burn. It makes no sense to let a house, especially a row-house or town home that is flanked by other structures, burn untended. There was of course the risk that the fire could spread to other structures. If they had insurance and had paid for the service was just an additional incentive. There were limited municipal firefighting services available and sometimes several fire companies would show up to help put out a fire. However, the homeowner would have to pay out of their own pocket if they didn't have insurance. If they couldn’t pay it they would implore their neighbors to help. Sometimes, several neighbors with adjoining houses would all go in on insurance, possibly to increase the chances that if one of them caught on fire they would all survive.
Due to the fact that these fire companies were for-profit organizations, the competition would sometimes result in bad behavior, Apparently some newspapers likened them to gangs. In an article by the Daily National Intelligencer that came out in September 25, 1844, they reported on a fight that broke out near the White House between two (unnamed) rival fire companies that resulted in several injuries. Also, since these were volunteer companies, sometimes they lacked for sufficient help or were unable to address a fire because their volunteers were at their actual job. Eventually it became clear that there needed to be an official fire department established. The first official tax-funded D.C. Fire Company was established by an act of Congress in 1864, but not implemented until 1884. By then, Georgetown and the City of Washington had been united into one city, and so the responsibilities of the D.C Fire Department extended to both. With the discontinuance of the fire companies there was no further need for the fire marks. Some people removed theirs, but many still linger above doorways.
Now the fire plaques serve as a curious, charming reminder of a different time. They have become collector's items at antique shops. They have been featured at the National Museum of American History. You may have one on your house! And now I'll have one in my library.