Spring 2024

Cabinet Is Safe

The emblems of German fire insurance

Sonja Lau

An example of the Berliner Feuersozietät “fire mark” attached to the facade of Cabinet’s first Berlin office.

Love in the Age of the Modern Insurance Business—Part I
As mentioned in a previous issue of Cabinet, there is a small enamel plate affixed to the facade of the magazine’s Berlin office.[1] The plate proudly bears the name and insignia of the Berliner Feuersozietät, one of Germany’s oldest insurance companies and, as such, a key player in the country’s historical battle against risk. The Feuersozietät (Fire Society) recently celebrated its tercentenary anniversary; it was founded in 1718 as a public institution by Brandenburg’s ruler, Friedrich Wilhelm I, four decades after the Hamburg city council established the Hamburger Feuerkasse, a pioneer of the modern fire insurance business. In other words: Cabinet is safe. What follows is a patchwork of thoughts and speculations on the social and juridical resonances—visible and intentional to varying degrees—of Berlin’s inaugural insurance company, and the enamel “fire marks” that they affixed to many of the city’s buildings.

Advertisements on vitreous enamel first appeared on German streets at the end of the nineteenth century. These beginnings could be said to be sweet, in that the first person to make use of them for marketing was chocolate factory owner Ludwig Stollwerck. Historically speaking, however, fire insurance–related enamels may have had a more bitter taste associated with them, especially in the larger European context. That is because one of the primary functions of these plaques was to distinguish between those individuals whose properties were insured against fire and those who could not afford such protection.

The sweet beginnings of the enamel revolution. A Stollwerck chocolate company sign, ca. 1903. Courtesy Schokoladenmuseum, Cologne.

This was particularly true in England, where a flourishing private fire insurance business had emerged in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Until the founding of a municipal fire brigade in the 1860s, these private insurers had agreements with various independent firefighting corps. The fire marks—made from simple brass or iron, before vitreous enamel became available—thus served as a kind of guarantee that in the case of a fire, the expenses related to extinguishing it would be reimbursed. What happened to buildings that lacked the necessary plate remains unclear. As historian Simone Ladwig-Winters has pointed out, “There is no evidence that a fire brigade that had shown up at a site would have left a house not insured by them to burn—but that doesn’t exclude the possibility.” Despite the lack of documentation, one suspects that a building without a fire mark was anything but safe.

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