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Fire Insurance in the United States

Dalit Baranoff

Fire Insurance before 1810

Marine Insurance

The first American insurers modeled themselves after British marine and fire insurers, who were already well-established by the eighteenth century. In eighteenth-century Britain, individual merchants wrote most marine insurance contracts. Shippers and ship owners were able to acquire insurance through an informal exchange centering on London’s coffeehouses. Edward Lloyd’s Coffee-house, the predecessor of Lloyd’s of London, came to dominate the individual underwriting business by the middle of the eighteenth century.

Similar insurance offices where local merchants could underwrite individual voyages began to appear in a number of American port cities in the 1720s. The trade centered on Philadelphia, where at least fifteen different brokerages helped place insurance in the hands of some 150 private underwriters over the course of the eighteenth century. But only a limited amount of coverage was available. American shippers also could acquire insurance through the agents of Lloyds and other British insurers, but often had to wait months for payments of losses.

Mutual Fire Insurance

When fire insurance first appeared in Britain after the Great London Fire of 1666, mutual societies, in which each policyholder owned a share of the risk, predominated. The earliest American fire insurers followed this model as well. Established in the few urban centers where capital was concentrated, American mutuals were not considered money-making ventures, but rather were outgrowths of volunteer firefighting organizations. In 1735 Charleston residents formed the first American mutual insurance company, the Friendly Society of Mutual Insuring of Homes against Fire. It only lasted until 1741, when a major fire put it out of business.

Benjamin Franklin was the organizing force behind the next, more successful, mutual insurance venture, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire 1, known familiarly by the name of its symbol, the “Hand in Hand.” By the 1780s, growing demand had led to the formation of other fire mutuals in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Norwich (CT), Charleston, Richmond, Boston, Providence, and elsewhere. (See Table 1.)

Joint-Stock Companies

Joint-stock insurance companies, which raise capital through the sale of shares and distribute dividends, rose to prominence in American fire and marine insurance after the War of Independence. While only a few British insurers were granted the royal charters that allowed them to sell stock and to claim limited liability, insurers in the young United States found it relatively easy to obtain charters from state legislatures eager to promote a domestic insurance industry.

Joint-stock companies first appeared in the marine sector, where demand and the potential for profit were greater. Because they did not rely on the fortunes of any one individual, joint-stock companies provided greater security than private underwriting. In addition to their premium income, joint-stock companies maintained a fixed capital, allowing them to cover larger amounts than mutuals could.

The first successful joint-stock company, the Insurance Company of North America, was formed in 1792 in Philadelphia to sell marine, fire, and life insurance. By 1810, more than seventy such companies had been chartered in the United States. Most of the firms incorporated before 1810 operated primarily in marine insurance, although they were often chartered to handle other lines. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: American Insurance Companies, 1735-1810

Connecticut
1794 Norwich Mutual Fire Insurance Co. (Norwich)
1796 New Haven Insurance Co.
1797 New Haven Insurance Co. (Marine)
1801 Mutual Assurance Co. (New Haven)
1803 Hartford Insurance Co.(M)
1803 Middletown Insurance Co. (Middletown) (M)
1803 Norwich Marine Insurance Co.
1805 Union Insurance Co. (New London) (M)
1810 Hartford Fire Insurance Co.
Maryland
1787 Baltimore Fire Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1791 Maryland I. Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1794 Baltimore Equitable Society (Baltimore)
1795 Baltimore Fire Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1795 Maryland Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1796 Charitable Marine Society (Baltimore)
1798 Georgetown Mutual Insurance Co. (Georgetown)
1804 Chesapeake Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1804 Marine Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1804 Union Insurance Co. of MD (Baltimore)
Massachusetts
1795 Massachusetts Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (Boston)
1798 Massachusetts Mutual Ins. Co. (Boston)
1799 Boston Marine Insurance Co. (Boston)
1799 Newburyport Marine Insurance Co. (Newburyport)
1800 Maine Fire and Marine Ins. Co. (Portland)
1800 Salem Marine Insurance Co. (Salem)
1803 New England Marine Insurance Co. (Boston)
1803 Suffolk Insurance Co. (Boston)
1803 Cumberland Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Portland, ME)
1803 Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (Salem)
1803 Gloucester Marine Ins. Co. (Gloucester)
1803 Lincoln and Kennebeck Marine Ins. Co. (Wicasset)
1803 Merrimac Marine and Fire Ins. Co. (Newburyport)
1803 Marblehead Marine Insurance Co. (Marblehead)
1803 Nantucket Marine Insurance Co. (Nantucket)
1803 Portland Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Portland)
1804 North American Insurance Co. (Boston)
1804 Union Insurance Co. (Boston)
1804 Hampshire Mutual Fire Insurance Co. (Northampton)
1804 Kennebunk Marine Ins. Co. (Wells)
1804 Nantucket Union Marine Insurance Co. (Nantucket)
1804 Plymouth Marine Insurance Co. (Plymouth)
1804 Union Marine Insurance Co. (Salem)
1805 Bedford Marine Insurance Co. (New Bedford)
1806 Newburyport Marine Insurance Co. (Newburyport)
1807 Bath Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (Bath)
1807 Middlesex Insurance Co. (Charlestown)
1807 Union Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Newburyport)
1808 Kennebeck Marine Ins. Co. (Bath)
1809 Beverly Marine Insurance Co. (Beverly)
1809 Marblehead Social (Marblehead)
1809 Social Insurance Co. (Salem)
Pennsylvania
1752 Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire
1784 Mutual Assurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1794 Insurance Co. of North America (Philadelphia)
1794 Insurance Co. of the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)
1803 Phoenix Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1803 Philadelphia Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1804 Delaware Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1804 Union Insurance Co. (Chester County)
1807 Lancaster and Susquehanna Insurance Co.
1809 Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1810 United States Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1810 American Fire Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
Delaware
1810 Farmers’ Bank of the State of Delaware (Dover)
Rhode Island
1799 Providence Insurance Co.
1800 Washington Insurance Co.
1800 Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Co.
South Carolina
1735 Friendly Society (Charleston) – royal charter
1797 Charleston Insurance Co. (Charleston)
1797 Charleston Mutual Insurance Co. (Charleston)
1805 South Carolina Insurance Co. (Charleston)
1807 Union Insurance Co. (Charleston)
New Hampshire
1799 New Hampshire Insurance Co. (Portsmouth)
New York City
1787 Knickerbocker Fire Insurance Co. (originally Mutual Insurance Co. of the City of New York)
1796 New York Insurance Co.
1796 Insurance Co. of New York
1797 Associated Underwriters
1798 Mutual Assurance Co.
1800 Columbian Insurance Co.
1802 Washington Mutual Assurance Co.
1802 Marine Insurance Co.
1804 Commercial Insurance Co.
1804 Eagle Fire Insurance Co.
1807 Phoenix Insurance Co.
1809 Mutual Insurance Co.
1810 Fireman’s Insurance Co.
1810 Ocean Insurance Co.
North Carolina
1803 Mutual Insurance Co. (Raleigh)
Virginia
1794 Mutual Assurance Society(Richmond)

The Embargo Act (1807-1809) and the War of 1812 (1812-1814) interrupted shipping, drying up marine insurers’ premiums and forcing them to look for other sources of revenue. These same events also stimulated the development of domestic industries, such as textiles, which created new demand for fire insurance. Together, these events led many marine insurers into the fire field, previously a sideline for most. After 1810, new joint-stock companies appeared whose business centered on fire insurance from the outset. Unlike mutuals, these new fire underwriters insured contents as well as real estate, a growing necessity as Americans’ personal wealth began to expand.

1810-1870

Geographic Diversification

Until the late 1830s, most fire insurers concentrated on their local markets, with only a few experimenting with representation through agents in distant cities. Many state legislatures discouraged “foreign” competition by taxing the premiums of out-of-state insurers. This situation prevailed through 1835, when fire insurers learned a lesson they were not to forget. A devastating fire destroyed New York City’s business district, causing between $15 million and $26 million in damage, bankrupting 23 of the 26 local fire insurance companies. From this point on, fire insurers regarded the geographic diversification of risks as imperative.

Insurers sought to enter new markets in order to reduce their exposure to large-scale conflagrations. They gradually discovered that contracting with agents allowed them to expand broadly, rapidly, and at relatively low cost. Pioneered mainly by companies based in Hartford and Philadelphia, the agency system did not become truly widespread until the 1850s. Once the system began to emerge in earnest, it rapidly took off. By 1855, for example, New York State had authorized 38 out-of-state companies to sell insurance there. Most were fewer than five years old. By 1860, national companies relying on networks of local agents had replaced purely local operations as the mainstay of the industry.

Competition

As the agency system grew, so too did competition. By the 1860s, national fire insurance firms competed in hundreds of local markets simultaneously. Low capitalization requirements and the widespread adoption of general incorporation laws provided for easy entry into the field.

Competition forced insurers to base their premiums on short-term costs. As a result, fire insurance rates were inadequate to cover the long-term costs associated with the city-wide conflagrations that might occur unpredictably once or twice in a generation. When another large fire occurred, many consumers would be left with worthless policies.

Aware of this danger, insurers struggled to raise rates through cooperation. Their most notable effort was the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Formed in 1866 with 75 member companies, it established local boards throughout the country to set uniform rates. But by 1870, renewed competition led the members of the National Board to give up the attempt.

Regulation

Insurance regulation developed during this period to protect consumers from the threat of insurance company insolvency. Beginning with New York (1849) and Massachusetts (1852), a number of states began to codify their insurance laws. Following New York’s lead in 1851, some states adopted $100,000-minimum capitalization requirements. But these rules did little to protect consumers when a large fire resulted in losses in excess of that amount.

By 1860 four states had established insurance departments. Two decades later, insurance departments, headed by a commissioner or superintendent, existed in some 25 states. In states without formal departments, the state treasurer, comptroller, or secretary of state typically oversaw insurance regulation.

State Insurance Departments through 1910
(Departments headed by insurance commissioner or superintendent unless otherwise indicated)

Source: Harry C. Brearley, Fifty Years of a Civilizing Force (1916), 261-174.
Year listed is year department began operating, not year legislation creating it was passed.

1852
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont (state treasurer served as insurance commissioner)
1855
  • Massachusetts (annual returns required since 1837)
1860
  • New York (comptroller first authorized to prepare reports in 1853, first annual report 1855)
1862
  • Rhode Island
1865
  • Indiana (1852-1865, state auditor headed)
  • Connecticut
1867
  • West Virginia (state auditor supervised 1865 until 1907, when reorganized)
1868
  • California
  • Maine
1869
  • Missouri
1870
  • Kentucky (part of bureau of state auditor.s department)
1871
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
1872
  • Florida
  • Ohio (1867-72, state auditor supervised)
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
1873
  • Arkansas
  • Nebraska
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee (state treasurer acted as insurance commissioner)
1876
  • Texas
1878
  • Wisconsin (1867-78, secretary of state supervised insurance)
1879
  • Delaware
1881
  • Nevada (1864-1881, state comptroller supervised insurance)
1883
  • Colorado
1887
  • Georgia (1869-1887, insurance supervised by state comptroller general)
1889
  • North Dakota
  • Washington (secretary of state acted as insurance commissioner until 1908)
1890
  • Oklahoma (secretary of territory headed through 1907)
1891
  • New Jersey (1875-1891, secretary of state supervised insurance)
1893
  • Illinois (auditor of public accounts supervised insurance 1869-1893)
1896
  • Utah (1884-1896, supervised by territorial secretary. Supervised by secretary of state until department reorganized in 1909)
1897
  • Alabama (1860-1897, insurance supervised by state auditor)
  • Wyoming (territorial auditor supervised insurance 1868-1896) (1877)
  • South Dakota (1889-1897, state auditor supervised)
1898
  • Louisiana (secretary of state acted as superintendent)
1900
  • Alaska (administered by survey-general of territory)
1901
  • Arizona (1887-1901 supervised by territorial treasurer)
  • Idaho (1891-1901, state treasurer headed)
1902
  • Mississippi (1857-1902, auditor of public accounts supervised insurance)
  • District of Columbia
1905
  • New Mexico (1882-1904, territorial auditor supervised)
1906
  • Virginia (from 1866 auditor of public accounts supervised)
1908
  • South Carolina (1876-1908, comptroller general supervised insurance)
1909
  • Montana (supervised by territorial/state auditor 1883-1909)

The Supreme Court affirmed state supervision of insurance in 1868 in Paul v. Virginia, which found insurance not to be interstate commerce. As a result, it would not be subject to any federal regulations over the coming decades.

1871-1906

Chicago and Boston Fires

The Great Chicago Fire of October 9 and 10, 1871 destroyed over 2,000 acres (nearly 3½ square miles) of the city. With close to 18,000 buildings burned, including 1,500 “substantial business structures,” 100,000 people were left homeless and thousands jobless. Insurance losses totaled between $90 and $100 million. Many firms’ losses exceeded their available assets.

About 200 fire insurance companies did business in Chicago at the time. The fire bankrupted 68 of them. At least one-half of the property in the burnt district was covered by insurance, but as a result of the insurance company failures, Chicago policyholders recovered only about 40 percent of what they were owed.

A year later, on November 9 and 10, 1872, a fire destroyed Boston’s entire mercantile district, an area of 40 acres. Insured losses in this case totaled more than $50 million, bankrupting an additional 32 companies. The rate of insurance coverage was higher in Boston, where commercial property, everywhere more likely to be insured, happened to bear the brunt of the fire. Some 75 percent of ruined buildings and their contents were insured against fire. In this case, policyholders recovered about 70 percent of their insured losses.

Local Boards

After the Chicago and Boston fires revealed the inadequacy of insurance rates, surviving insurers again tried to set rates collectively. By 1875, a revitalized National Board had organized over 1,000 local boards, placing them under the supervision of district organizations. State auxiliary boards oversaw the districts, and the National Board itself was the final arbiter of rates. But this top-down structure encountered resistance from the local agents, long accustomed to setting their own rates. In the midst of the economic downturn that followed the Panic of 1873, the National Board’s efforts again collapsed.

In 1877, the membership took a fresh approach. They voted to dismantle the centralized rating bureaucracy, instead leaving rate-setting to local boards composed of agents. The National Board now focused its attention on promoting fire prevention and collecting statistics. By the mid-1880s, local rate-setting cartels operated in cities throughout the U.S. Regional boards or private companies rated smaller communities outside the jurisdiction of a local board.

The success of the new breed of local rate-setting cartels owed much to the ever-expanding scale of commerce and property, which fostered a system of mutual dependence between the local agents. Although individual agents typically represented multiple companies, they had come routinely to split risks amongst themselves and the several firms they served. Responding to the imperative of diversification, companies rarely covered more than $10,000 on an individual property, or even within one block of a city.

As property values rose, it was not unusual to see single commercial buildings insured by 20 or more firms, each underwriting a $1,000 or $2,000 chunk of a given risk. Insurers who shared their business had few incentives to compete on price. Undercutting other insurers might even cost them future business. When a sufficiently large group of agents joined forces to set minimum prices, they effectively could shut out any agents who refused to follow the tariff.

Cooperative price-setting by local boards allowed insurers to maintain higher rates, taking periodic conflagrations into account as long-term costs. Cooperation also resulted, for the first time, in rates that followed a stable pattern, where aggregate prices reflected aggregate costs, the so-called underwriting cycle.

(Note: The underwriting cycle is illustrated above using combined ratios, which are the ratio of losses and expenses to premium income in any given year. Because combined ratios include dividend payments but not investment income, they are often greater than 100.)

Local boards helped fire insurance companies diversify their risks and stabilize their rates. The companies in turn, supported the local boards. As a result, the local rate-setting boards that formed during the early 1880s proved remarkably durable and successful. Despite brief disruptions in some cities during the severe economic downturn of the mid-1890s, the local boards did not fail.

As an additional benefit, insurers were able to accomplish collectively what they could not afford to do individually: collect and analyze data on a large scale. The “science” of fire insurance remained in its infancy. The local boards inspected property and created detailed rating charts. Some even instituted scheduled rating – a system where property owners were penalized for defects, such as lack of fire doors, and rewarded for improvements. Previously, agents had set rates based on their personal, idiosyncratic knowledge of local conditions. Within the local boards, agents shared both their subjective personal knowledge and objective data. The results were a crude approximation of an actuarial science.

Anti-Compact Laws

Price-setting by local boards was not viewed favorably by many policy-holders who had to pay higher prices for insurance. Since Paul v. Virginia had exempted insurance from federal antitrust laws, consumers encouraged their state legislatures to pass laws outlawing price collusion among insurers. Ohio adopted the first anti-compact law in 1885, followed by Michigan (1887), Arkansas, Nebraska, Texas, and Kansas (1889), Maine, New Hampshire, and Georgia (1891). By 1906, 19 states had anti-compact laws, but they had limited effectiveness. Where open collusion was outlawed, insurers simply established private rating bureaus to set “advisory” rates.

Spread of Insurance

Local boards flourished in prosperous times. During the boom years of the 1880s, new capital flowed into every sector. The increasing concentration of wealth in cities steadily drove the amounts and rates of covered property upward. Between 1880 and 1889, insurance coverage rose by an average rate of 4.6 percent a year, increasing 50 percent overall. By 1890, close to 60 percent of burned property in the U.S. was insured, a figure that would not be exceeded until the 1910s, when upwards of 70 percent of property was insured.

In 1889, the dollar value of property insured against fire in the United States approached $12 billion. Fifteen years later, $20 billion dollars in property was covered.

Baltimore and San Francisco

The ability of higher, more stable prices to insulate industry and society from the consequences of citywide conflagrations can be seen in the strikingly different results following the sequels to Boston and Chicago, which occurred in Baltimore and San Francisco in the early 1900s. The Baltimore Fire of Feb. 7 through 9, 1904 resulted in $55 million in insurance claims, 90 percent of which was paid. Only a few Maryland-based companies went bankrupt.

San Francisco’s disaster dwarfed Baltimore’s. The earthquake that struck the city on April 18, 1906 set off fires that burned for three days, destroying over 500 blocks that contained at least 25,000 buildings. The damages totaled $350 million, some two-thirds covered by insurance. In the end, $225 million was paid out, or around 90 percent of what was owed. Only 20 companies operating in San Francisco were forced to suspend business, some only temporarily.

Improvements in construction and firefighting would put an end to the giant blazes that had plagued America’s cities. But by the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, cooperative price-setting in fire insurance already had ameliorated the worst economic consequences of these disasters.

1907-1920

State Rate-Setting

Despite the passage of anti-compact legislation, fire insurance in the early 1900s was regulated as much by companies as by state governments. After Baltimore and San Francisco, state governments, recognizing the value of cooperative price-setting, began to abandon anti-compact laws in favor of state involvement in rate-setting which took one of two forms: set rates, or state review of industry-set rates.

Kansas was the first to adopt strict rate regulation in 1909, followed by Texas in 1910 and Missouri in 1911. These laws required insurers to submit their rates for review by the state insurance department, which could overrule them. Contesting the constitutionality of its law, the insurance industry took the State of Kansas to court. In 1914, the Supreme Court of the United States decided German Alliance Insurance Co. v. Ike Lewis, Superintendent of Insurance in favor of Kansas. The Court declared insurance to be a public good, subject to rate regulation.

While the case was pending, New York entered the rating arena in 1911 with a much less restrictive law. New York’s law was greatly influenced by a legislative investigation, the Merritt Committee. The Armstrong Committee’s investigation of New York’s life insurance industry in 1905 had uncovered numerous financial improprieties, leading legislators to call for investigations into the fire insurance industry, where they hoped to discover similar evidence of corruption or profiteering. The Merritt Committee, which met in 1910 and 1911, instead found that most fire insurance companies brought in only modest profits.

The Merritt Committee further concluded that cooperation among firms was often in the public interest, and recommended that insurance boards continue to set rates. The ensuing law mandated state review of rates to prevent discrimination, requiring companies to charge the same rates for the same types of property. The law also required insurance companies to submit uniform statistics on premiums and losses for the first time. Other states soon adopted similar requirements. By the early 1920, nearly thirty states had some form of rate regulation.

Data Collection

New York’s data-collection requirement had far-reaching consequences for the entire fire insurance industry. Because every major insurer in the United States did business in New York (and often a great deal of it), any regulatory act passed there had national implications. And once New York mandated that companies submit data, the imperative for a uniform classification system was born.

In 1914, the industry responded by creating an Actuarial Bureau within the National Board of Fire Underwriters to collect uniformly organized data and submit it to the states. Supported by the National Convention of Insurance Commissioners (today called the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or NAIC), the Actuarial Bureau was soon able to establish uniform, industry-wide classification standards. The regular collection of uniform data enabled the development of modern actuarial science in the fire field.

1920 to the Present

Federal Regulation

Through the 1920s and 1930s, property insurance rating continued as it had before, with various rating bureaus determining the rates that insurers were to charge, and the states reviewing or approving them. In 1944, the Supreme Court decided a federal antitrust suit against the Southeastern Underwriters Association, which set rates in a number of southern states. The Supreme Court found the SEUA to be in violation of the Sherman Act, thereby overturning Paul v. Virginia. The industry had become subject to federal regulation for the first time.

Within a year, Congress had passed the McCarran-Ferguson Act, allowing the states to continue regulating insurance so long as they met certain federal requirements. The law also granted the industry a limited exemption from antitrust statutes. The Act gave the National Association of Insurance Commissioners three years to develop model rating laws for the states to adopt.

State Rating Laws

In 1946, the NAIC adopted model rate laws for fire and casualty insurance that required “prior approval” of rates by the states before they could be used by insurers. While most of the industry supported this requirement as a way to prevent competition, a group of “independent” insurers opposed prior approval and instead supported “file and use” rates.

By the 1950s, all states had passed rating laws, although not necessarily the model laws. Some allowed insurers to file deviations from bureau rates, while others required bureau membership and strict prior approval of rates. Most regulatory activity through the late 1950s involved the industry’s attempts to protect the bureau rating system.

The bureaus’ tight hold on rates was soon to loosen. In 1959, an investigation into bureau practices by a U.S. Senate Antitrust subcommittee (the O’Mahoney Committee) found that competition should be the main regulator of the industry. As a result, some states began to make it easier for insurers to deviate from prior approval rates.

During the 1960s, two different systems of property/casualty insurance regulation developed. While many states abandoned prior approval in favor of competitive rating, others strengthened strict rating laws. At the same time, the many rating bureaus that had provided rates for different states began to consolidate. By the 1970s, the rates that these combined rating bureaus provided were officially only advisory. Insurers could choose whether to use them or develop their own rates.

Although membership in rating bureaus is no longer mandatory, advisory organizations continue to play an important part in property/casualty insurance by providing required statistics to the states. They also allow new firms easy access to rating data. The Insurance Services Office (ISO), one of the largest “bureaus,” became a for-profit corporation in 1997, and is no longer controlled by the insurance industry. Still, even in its current, mature state, the property/casualty field still functions largely according to the patterns set in fire insurance by the 1920s.

References and Further Reading:

Bainbridge, John. Biography of an Idea: The Story of Mutual Fire and Casualty Insurance. New York: Doubleday, 1952.

Baranoff, Dalit. “Shaped By Risk: Fire Insurance in America 1790-1920.” Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 2003.

Brearley, Harry Chase. Fifty Years of a Civilizing Force: An Historical and Critical Study of the Work of the National Board of Fire Underwriters. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916.

Grant, H. Roger. Insurance Reform: Consumer Action in the Progressive Era. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1979.

Harrington, Scott E. “Insurance Rate Regulation in the Twentieth Century.” Journal of Risk and Insurance 19, no. 2 (2000): 204-18.

Lilly, Claude C. “A History of Insurance Regulation in the United States.” CPCU Annals 29 (1976): 99-115.

Perkins, Edwin J. American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Pomeroy, Earl and Carole Olson Gates. “State and Federal Regulation of the Business of Insurance.” Journal of Risk and Insurance 19, no. 2 (2000): 179-88.

Tebeau, Mark. Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Wagner, Tim. “Insurance Rating Bureaus.” Journal of Risk and Insurance 19, no. 2 (2000): 189-203.

1 The name appears in various sources as either the “Contributionship” or the “Contributorship.”

Citation: Baranoff, Dalit. “Fire Insurance in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/fire-insurance-in-the-united-states/

Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850

Author(s):Pearson, Robin
Reviewer(s):Tebeau, Mark

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Robin Pearson, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004. xiii + 434 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-3363-2.

Reviewed by Mark Tebeau, Department of History, Cleveland State University.

Despite its rather obvious importance to modern economic development, the history of fire and property insurance has been largely neglected. Until now that is. Robin Pearson’s exhaustively researched and meticulously argued study, Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700-1850, offers the definitive history of the British fire insurance industry through the middle of the nineteenth century. Even more critically, Pearson establishes just how integral property insurance was to the industrial revolution. Although Pearson is careful to note that fire insurance did not determine the economic development (and, in fact, was often shaped by it), he shows how fire insurance developed in support of the broader economy, was often at the cutting edge of industrial business expansion, and fostered further economic growth.

At its broadest level, Pearson’s argument demonstrates how fire insurance was integral to an industrializing society. Widely available in London by the 1850s and easily acquired in the provinces, fire insurance reduced the uncertainty associated with the hazard of fire — at least in economic terms for businesses and the middle-class for whom insurance policies would have been most affordable. On mechanistic grounds, the availability of relatively cheap and stable forms of insurance offered security to property owners — residential, mercantile, or manufacturing. By indemnifying policy holders from significant property losses associated with fires, insurance provided an institutional incentive for accumulating wealth in the form of material items and investment. In short, it minimized the risks associated with aggressive economic development. At the same time, fire insurance was critical to the financing of the infrastructure, thus critical to industrial development. Firms provided capital for a variety of public improvement projects as well as for private economic ventures. Fire insurance firms also depended on and strengthened the institutional networks on which economic development depended. Thus, fire insurance became integral to industrial activity, “forming part of the feedback mechanism by which trust and confidence multiplied within business communities” (368).

Pearson’s research is exhaustive and his arguments are qualified with exceptional care — so much so, that it is difficult to offer a full accounting in a brief review. Insuring the Industrial Revolution begins with an initial chapter that outlines the overall development of the industry in a series of detailed and well-constructed tables. After that, the story is organized into two parts. The first section offers a chronological portrait of the industry. Pearson essentially divides his narrative into three periods of analysis, bounded by major political and economic developments, as well as shifting trends in the industry itself: the period from 1720 to 1782, the era from 1782 to 1815, and finally the years between 1815 and 1850. In these chapters, Pearson places the industry into the historiography of the British industrial revolution. Throughout, he takes an approach that explores the entirety of the market in insurance. He explores the vagaries of fire insurance firms in the provincial areas as well as in larger cities. He meticulously compiles and analyzes a mountain of data, synthesized into over fifty figures and tables — an impressive and (no-doubt) time-consuming contribution in their own right.

The second section of Insuring the Industrial Revolution examines the industry’s internal organization in a thematic explication of its central elements. It explores four broad topical areas: the process of company foundation and the social, political, and economic networks behind this process; the marketing of insurance and the development of networks of agents to manage the insurance transactions; the core practice of underwriting and its change over time, including the challenges of assessing risk; and the trends in how companies invested their capital and understood that capital in terms of their broader portfolio of risk, as well as how the insurance industry operated as an investment from the perspective of individual investors.

Although well written, it is easy to get lost in the details of this story. Pearson lovingly and painstakingly recounts an exhaustive list of similarities and differences in the industry, paying special attention to the geographic differences between Britain’s various provincial areas, and between the provinces and the major metropolitan centers. Sometimes frustrating from the perspective of a reader, this level of specificity nonetheless advances the larger purpose of the book, which is to recognize that subtle — and sometimes contradictory — manner in which the industry developed. Nor is this precisely a critique of Pearson’s skill as a writer. To the contrary, Pearson shows deft authorial voice in juggling such a complex story. For example, both the first and second sections of the narrative cover the same material, but there is little sense of redundancy here. In fact, Pearson’s examination of the various elements of the insurance industry is exceptionally well constructed. These chapters are a primer on the basics of insurance, introducing issues that did not disappear in 1850 but would continue to haunt insurers well into the twentieth century.

Insuring the Industrial Revolution will become a touchstone for future research on the history of fire and property insurance in part because of the connections that Pearson makes between industrialization and fire insurance. More importantly, though, this work also lays out an agenda for future research into the industry. Pearson provides a compelling argument as to why we should seek to better understand the connections between economic development and property insurance. He suggests, too, that we must look at the subject globally, developing rich cases studies that explore the history of insurance in Europe, the United States, and other places. And, through the example of what he has done with the British fire insurance industry, he demonstrates the benefits of weaving such case studies into the comparative history of property insurance. Not only will we get a better sense of the particulars of the industry, but we will also be able to better understand how the expansion of global economic connections may have fostered the stability of the insurance industry by creating a market in reinsurance and dispersing risk more widely. And, finally, we must keep in mind that the history of the fire insurance industry does not end in 1850 with the advent of more sophisticated tools for understanding risk. Rather, the industry’s continued evolution occurs in a direct relation to broader economic, political, and societal changes, not the least of which is that the danger of fire itself will continue to shift in modernizing societies.

Indeed, if Insuring the Industrial Revolution shows how the study of fire insurance contributes to broader debates in economic history, it also suggests implicitly that we place the study of fire insurance into a wider historical lens. Unfortunately, Pearson is a bit too guarded about such possibilities, arguing that “establishing an evidential link between the expansion of insurance and broad attitudinal changes in a society is extremely difficult” (368). However, I believe that we should nonetheless push the boundaries here and broaden the frame. We should identify ways in which the expansion of fire (and property) insurance was related to changes in the social, cultural, and political realms. I agree that such connections are difficult to prove, but as I suggest in my own work on urban fire risk, the work of insurers had tremendous implications for society. These include encouraging consumerism and the consumer safety movement; fire underwriters’ activities are clearly linked to shifting perceptions of societal danger; and, at the very least, insurers’ visions of the world frequently have been built into the material landscapes of ordinary life.

Insuring the Industrial Revolution is a singular achievement. Robin Pearson demonstrates that fire insurance played a consequential, if sometimes ambivalent, role in the industrial revolution. He also provides a roadmap that future scholars in this area will follow when constructing their own studies of the history of fire insurance. I hope that this fine study garners the wide audience it deserves.

Mark Tebeau is author of Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950 (Johns Hopkins University Press: 2003).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century

Life Insurance in the United States through World War I

Sharon Ann Murphy

The first American life insurance enterprises can be traced back to the late colonial period. The Presbyterian Synods in Philadelphia and New York set up the Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers in 1759; the Episcopalian ministers organized a similar fund in 1769. In the half century from 1787 to 1837, twenty-six companies offering life insurance to the general public opened their doors, but they rarely survived more than a couple of years and sold few policies [Figures 1 and 2]. The only early companies to experience much success in this line of business were the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities (chartered 1812), the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company (1818), the Baltimore Life Insurance Company (1830), the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company (1830), and the Girard Life Insurance, Annuity and Trust Company of Pennsylvania (1836). [See Table 1.]

Despite this tentative start, the life insurance industry did make some significant strides beginning in the 1830s [Figure 2]. Life insurance in force (the total death benefit payable on all existing policies) grew steadily from about $600,000 in 1830 to just under $5 million a decade later, with New York Life and Trust policies accounting for more than half of this latter amount. Over the next five years insurance in force almost tripled to $14.5 million before surging by 1850 to just under $100 million of life insurance spread among 48 companies. The top three companies – the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (1842), the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of New Jersey (1845), and the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (1846) – accounted for more than half of this amount. The sudden success of life insurance during the 1840s can be attributed to two main developments – changes in legislation impacting life insurance and a shift in the corporate structure of companies towards mutualization.

Married Women’s Acts

Life insurance companies targeted women and children as the main beneficiaries of insurance, despite the fact that the majority of women were prevented by law from gaining the protection offered in the unfortunate event of their husband’s death. The first problem was that companies strictly adhered to the common law idea of insurable interest which required that any person taking out insurance on the life of another have a specific monetary interest in that person’s continued life; “affection” (i.e. the relationship of husband and wife or parent and child) was not considered adequate evidence of insurable interest. Additionally, married women could not enter into contracts on their own and therefore could not take out life insurance policies either on themselves (for the benefit of their children or husband) or directly on their husbands (for their own benefit). One way around this problem was for the husband to take out the policy on his own life and assign his wife or children as the beneficiaries. This arrangement proved to be flawed, however, since the policy was considered part of the husband’s estate and therefore could be claimed by any creditors of the insured.

New York’s 1840 Law

This dilemma did not pass unnoticed by promoters of life insurance who viewed it as one of the main stumbling blocks to the growth of the industry. The New York Life and Trust stood at the forefront of a campaign to pass a state law enabling women to procure life insurance policies protected from the claims of creditors. The law, which passed the New York state legislature on April 1, 1840, accomplished four important tasks. First, it established the right of a woman to enter into a contract of insurance on the life of her husband “by herself and in her name, or in the name of any third person, with his assent, as her trustee.” Second, that insurance would be “free from the claims of the representatives of her husband, or of any of his creditors” unless the annual premiums on the policy exceeded $300 (approximately the premium required to take out the maximum $10,000 policy on the life of a 40 year old). Third, in the event of the wife predeceasing the husband, the policy reverted to the children who were granted the same protection from creditors. Finally, as the law was interpreted by both companies and the courts, wives were not required to prove their monetary interest in the life of the insured, establishing for the first time an instance of insurable interest independent of pecuniary interest in the life of another.

By December of 1840, Maryland had enacted an identical law – copied word for word from the New York statute. The Massachusetts legislation of 1844 went one step further by protecting from the claims of creditors all policies procured “for the benefit of a married woman, whether effected by her, her husband, or any other person.” The 1851 New Jersey law was the most stringent, limiting annual premiums to only $100. In those states where a general law did not exist, new companies often had the New York law inserted into their charter, with these provisions being upheld by the state courts. For example, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company (1846), the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company (1849), and the Jefferson Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati, Ohio (1850) all provided this protection in their charters despite the silence of their respective states on the issue.

Mutuality

The second important development of the 1840s was the emergence of mutual life insurance companies in which any annual profits were redistributed to the policyholders rather than to stockholders. Although mutual insurance was not a new concept – the Society for Equitable Assurances on Lives and Survivorships of London had been operating under the mutual plan since its establishment in 1762 and American marine and fire companies were commonly organized as mutuals – the first American mutual life companies did not begin issuing policies until the early 1840s. The main impetus for this shift to mutualization was the panic of 1837 and the resulting financial crisis, which combined to dampen the enthusiasm of investors for projects ranging from canals and railroads to banks and insurance companies. Between 1838 and 1846, only one life insurance company was able to raise the capital essential for organization on a stock basis. On the other hand, mutuals required little initial capital, relying instead on the premium payments from high-volume sales to pay any death claims. The New England Mutual Life Insurance Company (1835) issued its first policy in 1844 and the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (1842) began operation in 1843; at least fifteen more mutuals were chartered by 1849.

Aggressive Marketing

In order to achieve the necessary sales volume, mutual companies began to aggressively promote life insurance through advertisements, editorials, pamphlets, and soliciting agents. These marketing tactics broke with the traditionally staid practices of banks and insurance companies whereby advertisements generally had provided only the location of the local office and agents passively had accepted applications from customers who inquired directly at their office.

Advantages of Mutuality

The mutual marketing campaigns not only advanced life insurance in general but mutuality in particular, which held widespread appeal for the public at large. Policyholders who could not afford to own stock in a proprietary insurance company could now share in the financial success of the mutual companies, with any annual profits (the excess of invested premium income over death payments) being redistributed to the policyholders, often in the form of reduced premium payments. The rapid success of life insurance during the late 1840s, as seen in Figure 3, thus can be attributed both to this active marketing as well as to the appeal of mutual insurance itself.

Regulation and Stagnation after 1849

While many of these companies operated on a sound financial basis, the ease of formation opened the field to several fraudulent or fiscally unsound companies. Stock institutions, concerned both for the reputation of life insurance in general as well as with self-preservation, lobbied the New York state legislature for a law to limit the operation of mutual companies. On April 10, 1849 the legislature passed a law requiring all new insurance companies either incorporating or planning to do business in New York to possess $100,000 of capital stock. Two years later, the legislature passed a more stringent law obligating all life insurance companies to deposit $100,000 with the Comptroller of New York. While this capital requirement was readily met by most stock companies and by the more established New York-based mutual companies, it effectively dampened the movement toward mutualization until the 1890s. Additionally, twelve out-of-state companies ceased doing business in New York altogether, leaving only the New England Mutual and the Mutual Benefit of New Jersey to compete with the New York companies in one of the largest markets. These laws were also largely responsible for the decade-long stagnation in insurance sales beginning in 1849 [Figure 3].

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

By the end of the 1850s life insurance sales again began to increase, climbing to almost $200 million by 1862 before tripling to just under $600 million by the end of the Civil War; life insurance in force peaked at $2 billion in 1871 [Figures 3 and 4]. Several factors contributed to this renewed success. First, the establishment of insurance departments in Massachusetts (1856) and New York (1859) to oversee the operation of fire, marine, and life insurance companies stimulated public confidence in the financial soundness of the industry. Additionally, in 1861 the Massachusetts legislature passed a non-forfeiture law, which forbade companies from terminating policies for lack of premium payment. Instead, the law stipulated that policies be converted to term life policies and that companies pay any death claims that occurred during this term period [term policies are issued only for a stipulated number of years, require reapplication on a regular basis, and consequently command significantly lower annual premiums which rise rapidly with age]. This law was further strengthened in 1880 when Massachusetts mandated that policyholders have the additional option of receiving a cash surrender value for a forfeited policy.

The Civil War was another factor in this resurgence. Although the industry had no experience with mortality during war – particularly a war on American soil – and most policies contained clauses that voided them in the case of military service, several major companies decided to ensure war risks for an additional premium rate of 2% to 5%. While most companies just about broke even on these soldiers’ policies, the goodwill and publicity engendered with the payment of each death claim combined with a generally heightened awareness of mortality to greatly increase interest in life insurance. In the immediate postbellum period, investment in most industries increased dramatically and life insurance was no exception. Whereas only 43 companies existed on the eve of the war, the newfound popularity of life insurance resulted in the establishment of 107 companies between 1865 and 1870 [Figure 1].

Tontines

The other major innovation in life insurance occurred in 1867 when the Equitable Life Assurance Society (1859) began issuing tontine or deferred dividend policies. While a portion of each premium payment went directly towards an ordinary insurance policy, another portion was deposited in an investment fund with a set maturity date (usually 10, 15, or 20 years) and a restricted group of participants. The beneficiaries of deceased policyholders received only the face value of the standard life component while participants who allowed their policy to lapse either received nothing or only a small cash surrender value. At the end of the stipulated period, the dividends that had accumulated in the fund were divided among the remaining participants. Agents often promoted these policies with inflated estimates of future returns – and always assured the potential investor that he would be a beneficiary of the high lapse rate and not one of the lapsing participants. Estimates indicate that approximately two-thirds of all life insurance policies in force in 1905 – at the height of the industry’s power – were deferred dividend plans.

Reorganization and Innovation

The success and profitability of life insurance companies bred stiff competition during the 1860s; the resulting market saturation and a general economic downtown combined to push the industry into a severe depression during the 1870s. While the more well-established companies such as the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, the New York Life Insurance Company (1843), and the Equitable Life Assurance Society were strong enough to weather the depression with few problems, most of the new corporations organized during the 1860s were unable to survive the downturn. All told, 98 life insurance companies went out of business between 1868 and 1877, with 46 ceasing operations during the depression years of 1871 to 1874 [Figure 1]. Of these, 32 failed outright, resulting in $35 million of losses for policyholders. It was 1888 before the amount of insurance in force surpassed that of its peak in 1870 [Figure 4].

Assessment and Fraternal Insurance Companies

Taking advantage of these problems within the industry were numerous assessment and fraternal benefit societies. Assessment or cooperative companies, as they were sometimes called, were associations in which each member was assessed a flat fee to provide the death benefit when another member died rather than paying an annual premium. The two main problems with these organizations were the uncertain number of assessments each year and the difficulty of maintaining membership levels. As members aged and death rates rose, the assessment societies found it difficult to recruit younger members willing to take on the increasing risks of assessments. By the turn of the century, most assessment companies had collapsed or reorganized as mutual companies.

Fraternal organizations were voluntary associations of people affiliated through ethnicity, religion, profession, or some other tie. Although fraternal societies had existed throughout the history of the United States, it was only in the postbellum era that they mushroomed in number and emerged as a major provider of life insurance, mainly for working-class Americans. While many fraternal societies initially issued insurance on an assessment basis, most soon switched to mutual insurance. By the turn of the century, the approximately 600 fraternal societies in existence provided over $5 billion in life insurance to their members, making them direct competitors of the major stock and mutual companies. Just 5 years later, membership was over 6 million with $8 billion of insurance in force [Figure 4].

Industrial Life Insurance

For the few successful life insurance companies organized during the 1860s and 1870s, innovation was the only means of avoiding failure. Aware that they could not compete with the major companies in a tight market, these emerging companies concentrated on markets previously ignored by the larger life insurance organizations – looking instead to the example of the fraternal benefit societies. Beginning in the mid-1870s, companies such as the John Hancock Company (1862), the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (1868), and the Prudential Insurance Company of America (1875) started issuing industrial life insurance. Industrial insurance, which began in England in the late 1840s, targeted lower income families by providing policies in amounts as small as $100, as opposed to the thousands of dollars normally required for ordinary insurance. Premiums ranging from $0.05 to $0.65 were collected on a weekly basis, often by agents coming door-to-door, instead of on an annual, semi-annual, or quarterly basis by direct remittance to the company. Additionally, medical examinations were often not required and policies could be written to cover all members of the family instead of just the main breadwinner. While the number of policies written skyrocketed to over 51 million by 1919, industrial insurance remained only a fraction of the amount of life insurance in force throughout the period [Figures 4 and 5].

International Expansion

The major life insurance companies also quickly expanded into the global market. While numerous firms ventured abroad as early as the 1860s and 1870s, the most rapid international growth occurred between 1885 and 1905. By 1900, the Equitable was providing insurance in almost 100 nations and territories, the New York Life in almost 50 and the Mutual in about 20. The international premium income (excluding Canada) of these Big Three life insurance companies amounted to almost $50 million in 1905, covering over $1 billion of insurance in force.

The Armstrong Committee Investigation

In response to a multitude of newspaper articles portraying extravagant spending and political payoffs by executives at the Equitable Life Assurance Society – all at the expense of their policyholders – Superintendent Francis Hendricks of the New York Insurance Department reluctantly conducted an investigation of the company in 1905. His report substantiated these allegations and prompted the New York legislature to create a special committee, known as the Armstrong Committee, to examine the conduct of all life insurance companies operating within the state. Appointed chief counsel of the investigation was future United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Among the abuses uncovered by the committee were interlocking directorates, the creation of subsidiary financial institutions to evade restrictions on investments, the use of proxy voting to frustrate policyholder control of mutuals, unlimited company expenses, tremendous spending for lobbying activities, rebating (the practice of returning to a new client a portion of their first premium payment as an incentive to take out a policy), the encouragement of policy lapses, and the condoning of “twisting” (a practice whereby agents misrepresented and libeled rival firms in order to convince a policyholder to sacrifice their existing policy and replace it with one from that agent). Additionally, the committee severely chastised the New York Insurance Department for permitting such malpractice to occur and recommended the enactment of a wide array of reform measures. These revelations induced numerous other states to conduct their own investigations, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Nebraska.

New Regulations

In 1907, the New York legislature responded to the committee’s report by issuing a series of strict regulations specifying acceptable investments, limiting lobbying practices and campaign contributions, democratizing management through the elimination of proxy voting, standardizing policy forms, and limiting agent activities including rebating and twisting. Most devastating to the industry, however, were the prohibition of deferred dividend policies and the requirement of regular dividend payments to policyholders. Nineteen other states followed New York’s lead in adopting similar legislation but the dominance of New York in the insurance industry enabled it to assert considerable influence over a large percentage of the industry. The state invoked the Appleton Rule, a 1901 administrative rule devised by New York Deputy Superintendent of Insurance Henry D. Appleton that required life insurance companies to comply with New York legislation both in New York and in all other states in which they conducted business, as a condition of doing business in New York. As the Massachusetts insurance commissioner immediately recognized, “In a certain sense [New York’s] supervision will be a national supervision, as its companies do business in all the states.” The rule was officially incorporated into New York’s insurance laws in 1939 and remained both in effect and highly effective until the 1970s.

Continued Growth in the Early Twentieth Century

The Armstrong hearings and the ensuing legislation renewed public confidence in the safety of life insurance, resulting in a surge of new company organizations not seen since the 1860s. Whereas only 106 companies existed in 1904, another 288 were established in the ten years from 1905 to 1914 [Figure 1]. Life insurance in force likewise rose rapidly, increasing from $20 billion on the eve of the hearings to almost $46 billion by the end of World War I, with the share insured by the fraternal and assessment societies decreasing from 40% to less than a quarter [Figure 5].

Group Insurance

One major innovation to occur during these decades was the development of group insurance. In 1911 the Equitable Life Assurance Society wrote a policy covering the 125 employees of the Pantasote Leather Company, requiring neither individual applications nor medical examinations. The following year, the Equitable organized a group department to promote this new product and soon was insuring the employees of Montgomery Ward Company. By 1919, 29 companies wrote group policies, which amounted to over a half billion dollars worth of life insurance in force.

War Risk Insurance

Not included in Figure 5 is the War Risk insurance issued by the United States government during World War I. Beginning in April 1917, all active military personnel received a $4,500 insurance policy payable by the federal government in the case of death or disability. In October of the same year, the government began selling low-cost term life and disability insurance, without medical examination, to all active members of the military. War Risk insurance proved to be extremely popular during the war, reaching over $40 billion of life insurance in force by 1919. In the aftermath of the war, these term policies quickly declined to under $3 billion of life insurance in force, with many servicemen turning instead to the whole life policies offered by the stock and mutual companies. As was the case after the Civil War, life insurance sales rose dramatically after World War I, peaking at $117 billion of insurance in force in 1930. By the eve of the Great Depression there existed over 120 million life insurance policies – approximately equivalent to one policy for every man, woman, and child living in the United States at that time.

(Sharon Ann Murphy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia.)

References and Further Reading

Buley, R. Carlyle. The American Life Convention, 1906-1952: A Study in the History of Life Insurance. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953.

Grant, H. Roger. Insurance Reform: Consumer Action in the Progressive Era. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1988.

Keller, Morton. The Life Insurance Enterprise, 1885-1910: A Study in the Limits of Corporate Power. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1963.

Kimball, Spencer L. Insurance and Public Policy: A Study in the Legal Implications of Social and Economic Public Policy, Based on Wisconsin Records 1835-1959. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

Merkel, Philip L. “Going National: The Life Insurance Industry’s Campaign for Federal Regulation after the Civil War.” Business History Review 65 (Autumn 1991): 528-553.

North, Douglass. “Capital Accumulation in Life Insurance between the Civil War and the Investigation of 1905.” In Men in Business: Essays on the Historical Role of the Entrepreneur, edited by William Miller, 238-253. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. “Tontine Insurance and the Armstrong Investigation: A Case of Stifled Innovation, 1868-1905.” Journal of Economic History 47, no. 2 (June 1987): 379-390.

Stalson, J. Owen. Marketing Life Insurance: Its History in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Table 1

Early American Life Insurance Companies, 1759-1844

Company Year Chartered Terminated Insurance in Force in 1840
Corp. for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers (Presbyterian Ministers Fund) 1759
Corporation for the Relief of the Widows and Children of Clergymen in the Communion of the Church of England in America (Episcopal Ministers Fund) 1769
Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania 1794 1798
Insurance Company of North America, PA 1794 1798
United Insurance Company, NY 1798 1802
New York Insurance Company 1798 1802
Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities 1812 1872* 691,000
New York Mechanics Life & Fire 1812 1813
Dutchess County Fire, Marine & Life, NY 1814 1818
Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company 1818 1867* 342,000
Union Insurance Company, NY 1818 1840
Aetna Insurance Company (mainly fire insurance; separate life company chartered in 1853) 1820 1853
Farmers Loan & Trust Company, NY 1822 1843
Baltimore Life Insurance Company 1830 1867 750,000 (est.)
New York Life Insurance & Trust Company 1830 1865* 2,880,000
Lawrenceburg Insurance Company 1832 1836
Mississippi Insurance Company 1833 1837
Protection Insurance Company, Mississippi 1833 1837
Ohio Life Ins. & Trust Co. (life policies appear to have been reinsured with New York Life & Trust in the late 1840s) 1834 1857 54,000
New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, Massachusetts (did not begin issuing policies until 1844) 1835 0
Ocean Mutual, Louisiana 1835 1839
Southern Life & Trust, Alabama 1836 1840
American Life Insurance & Trust Company, Baltimore 1836 1840
Girard Life Insurance, Annuity & Trust Company, Pennsylvania 1836 1894 723,000
Missouri Life & Trust 1837 1841
Missouri Mutual 1837 1841
Globe Life Insurance, Trust & Annuity Company, Pennsylvania 1837 1857
Odd Fellow Life Insurance and Trust Company, Pennsylvania 1840 1857
National of Pennsylvania 1841 1852
Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York 1842
New York Life Insurance Company 1843
State Mutual Life Assurance Company, Massachusetts 1844

*Date company ceased writing life insurance.

Citation: Murphy, Sharon. “Life Insurance in the United States through World War I”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2002. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/life-insurance-in-the-united-states-through-world-war-i/

World Insurance: The Evolution of a Global Risk Network

Reviewer(s):Clark, Geoffrey

Published by EH.Net (August 2013)
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Peter Borscheid and Niels Viggo Haueter, editors, World Insurance: The Evolution of a Global Risk Network. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xvi + 729 pp. $180 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-65796-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Geoffrey Clark, Department of History, State University of New York at Potsdam.

This massive volume on the spread and integration of insurance services internationally comes on the heels of two much less comprehensive collections of essays about insurance globalization during the past two centuries.[1]? Those earlier studies were self-consciously pioneering efforts to descry the contours of a convoluted and sprawling historical landscape that scholars had scarcely explored hitherto. Now, with the appearance of World Insurance: The Evolution of a Global Risk Network, the development and diffusion of insurance worldwide has received a definitive, although hardly final, treatment. For the first time, historians working across a range of subjects from finance and economic modernization to social welfare and even religion have access to a systematic account of how the insurance industry has transformed the risk environment faced by billions around the world and how that process has knit together the economies and fortunes of far flung societies and cultures.

That said, few readers will possess the fortitude to read this book cover to cover, an expectation that the editors wisely seem to have anticipated in their format. Peter Borscheid provides an admirably concise summary of the overarching themes in a general introduction, which is followed by six parts successively devoted to Europe, North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Northern Africa, the Far East and Pacific, and Latin American and Caribbean. Each of those regional sections begins with another of Borscheid?s introductory overviews, followed by a number of essays focused on specific countries. This organization allows readers to easily survey the broad features of the international insurance business or to bore down into the experience of one region or nation. The geographical coverage is not uniform ? nor could it possibly be given the fact that in the modern era insurance services radiated largely from the UK and were taken up earliest and most strongly in Europe and North America. The vast disparities in global wealth and insurance penetration that persist to the present are reflected narratively in the eight chapters that cover individual European countries while only one chapter examines the national history of sub-Saharan nations, namely the quite exceptional case of South Africa. That telltale gap is also illustrated in Borscheid?s astonishing observation that (leaving South Africa aside) the total of insurance premiums currently paid in all of sub-Saharan Africa is just 1.5 times that spent in tiny Liechtenstein (p. 324).

One of the central themes running through the essays of World Insurance, and forcefully argued by Borscheid, is that the spread of insurance around the globe was closely tied to the migration of Europeans themselves rather than simply to the export of the insurance idea alone. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries insurance services were focused mainly on the property and lives of Europeans settled abroad. As late as 1950, to cite an extreme example, 99 percent of insurance policyholders in Ethiopia were foreign residents (p. 316). These essays offer several explanations for the slow adoption of the insurance habit by indigenous peoples. Widespread poverty in many regions simply made insurance policies unaffordable, while the persistence of community- and kin-based networks of mutual aid reduced the need for European-style insurance facilities. On the other hand, as G. Balachandran points out, colonial prejudices made Western insurers wary of extending insurance coverage to native populations. One insurance trade journal from 1891 objected that Indians were bad risks because they were prone to early death and were difficult to identify positively, a fact that invited fraud since ?as a rule, the native is … devoid of moral sense in the matter of truth? (p. 447). Finally, religious scruples have sometimes prevented the acceptance of insurance, especially in conservative Arabian Peninsula, because Sharia law does not recognize insurance contracts and forbids speculation on human life. In a move reminiscent of earlier European attempts to circumvent prohibitions on usury, insurers in Muslim lands have devised Takaful, a mutualized form of insurance that is Sharia-compliant.
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Although one of the stated aims of World Insurance is to provide a cultural context to the rapid spread of insurance around the world (p. 1), the preponderance of attention is given to the economic and political dimensions of that development. The first wave of insurance globalization was carried out in the era of high liberalism as European powers established underwriting facilities in settler enclaves and then began to cultivate a local market in fire, property and casualty, and to a much lesser extent, life insurance. Towards the close of the nineteenth century European countries began to erect protectionist barriers to foreign insurers, a move replicated in following decades by Asian, African, and Latin American nations, who variously imposed reserve requirements, currency regulations, and discriminatory taxes on foreign companies in order to prevent capital outflows and to foster domestic insurance industries. In many cases these efforts succeeded in cultivating a home market, but at a price: many entrants into these fledgling markets were undercapitalized and poorly managed, prompting governments both in Europe and around the world to initiate periodic regulatory shakeouts of weak companies. In any case, the extent to which national insurance markets could truly be isolated from the global economy was limited by the excess risks ceded by domestic insurers to international reinsurers like Swiss Re (the company that, not coincidentally, sponsored this historical study of insurance internationalization). This protectionist era came to an end in the 1980s and 90s with the inauguration of what Jer?nia Pons Pons describes as the second wave of insurance globalization, which involved a relaxation of restrictions on foreign insurers; a string of mergers, acquisitions, and the creation of foreign subsidiaries; and the realization of greater efficiencies as the result of keener competition.
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Opportunities for the spread of insurance have also fluctuated with the ebb and flow of programs either to socialize or to privatize insurance risks. The creation of the Soviet Union and the People?s Republic of China furnish the most dramatic examples of the wholesale transfer of insurance services to state control. But whether done in the name of socialism, fascism, social democracy, or anti-colonial nationalism, the assumption by the state of responsibility for the provision of health care and pensions, or compensation for losses due to fire, flood, or loss of life, all diminished or eliminated the latitude of insurance businesses operating across national boundaries. The recent return to an emphasis on less regulated private enterprise in providing insurance cover, as well as the more integrated delivery of financial services exemplified by bancassurance, is just the latest swing of the pendulum toward private control, now in the guise of multinational corporate power and a neo-liberal ideology. Whether the post-2008 financial debacle will induce a return to a more stringent regulatory environment and a new generation of statist approaches to insurance is a question that must await a sequel to Borscheid and Haueter?s imposing and standard-setting World Insurance.

Note:
1. Peter Borscheid and Robin Pearson, editors, Internationalisation and Globalisation of the Insurance Industry in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Marburg: Philipps-University, 2007); Robin Pearson, editor, The Development of International Insurance (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010).

Geoffrey Clark is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He is the author of Betting on Lives: The Culture of Life Insurance in England, 1695-1775 and co-editor of The Appeal of Insurance. He is working on a study of slavery insurance in the late medieval Mediterranean.

Copyright (c) 2013 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (August 2013). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview

Subject(s):Business History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

From Industrial to Legal Standardization, 1871-1914: Transnational Insurance Law and the Great San Francisco Earthquake

Author(s):Röder, Tilmann J.
Reviewer(s):Pearson, Robin

Published by EH.Net (December 2012)

Tilmann J. R?der, From Industrial to Legal Standardization, 1871-1914: Transnational Insurance Law and the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2011. xviii + 350 pp. ?99/$136 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-21237-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robin Pearson, Department of History, University of Hull.

Tilmann R?der of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg currently works on constitutional law projects in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. His early research, however, was on the development of contractual forms in transnational insurance, a topic rarely touched upon by historians. This unusual and interesting book, which is the English translation of his doctoral thesis published in German in 2006, examines the attempt by reinsurance companies, in the wake of the San Francisco disaster of 1906, to achieve an internationally agreed clause in fire insurance policies that would exclude insurers? liability for fire damage caused by earthquakes.

According to R?der, the earthquake clause was one example of the genesis of a ?transnational legal system? for business between 1871 and 1914. Contractual practice within and between private companies, not state law, was the driver of this change. Standard contracts helped increase the efficiency of transactions, facilitated international commerce, and compensated for the ?cultural lag? of the law in keeping up with developments in business. This argument, based on research in contemporary literature and the archives of German and Swiss reinsurance companies, is developed in three lengthy chapters on the development of the earthquake clause and the associated debates among lawyers and insurance professionals.

The earthquake and fires that devastated San Francisco in April 1906 destroyed 25,000 buildings and left 700 dead. The total loss of property came to about $400 million, of which some $265 million was paid out by insurers. Fifteen American and four European insurance companies went bankrupt. Only a small number of insurers carried a clause in their policies that exempted them from liability for damages arising from an earthquake. Disputes with claimants centered around the question of causation. It quickly became clear that the sympathy of Californian juries, and public opinion in the U.S. more generally, lay with the victims. Even when courts accepted the validity of an earthquake clause, it proved difficult for insurers to show that either the ?proximate? or ?remote? cause of fire damage was the earthquake. One response, adopted by several of the larger American and British companies, was to pay claims regardless of liability, deducting only for salvage. These became lauded as ?dollar for dollar? companies. Some later reaped the rewards of an enhanced market share and higher premiums. Another response, adopted by German companies, was to resist claims, flee vilification in the U.S. press, and face claimants before more amenable German courts. A third response was that of four German and Swiss reinsurance companies, who established a self-styled ?Earthquake Commission? to campaign for a uniform, internationally agreed earthquake clause to be inserted into all fire insurance policies around the globe. The reinsurers collected information on earthquake regulations around the world and drafted a model clause that excluded liability for fire damage caused either directly or indirectly by an earthquake, and that shifted the burden of proof onto the insured.

R?der regards this Earthquake Commission of 1906-08 as a pioneer of standardization in insurance, and he provides an account of how their proposed clause was received in different markets. What stands out, however, is how limited their success was. In the U.S. state legislatures introduced standard fire insurance policies that included, rather than excluded, earthquake liability for insurers. This gave companies a further incentive to abandon their own earthquake clauses, because their continued use would only increase the adverse selection problem in a highly competitive market. In Britain the Fire Offices Committee, the main cartel organization, left the decision up to its individual members. The Earthquake Commission had no more success in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia or Scandinavia. In Italy there was a muted response. Not until after the Messina earthquake of December 1908 did courts eventually accept the validity of the earthquake clause. In Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany and Austria-Hungary new earthquake regulations were adopted that did satisfy the Earthquake Commission. Yet this hardly amounted to a sea-change in international standardization before 1914, for only a small number of insurers from these countries operated on a global scale. Moreover, those European companies that did underwrite abroad were usually compelled to follow the lead of the British in accepting earthquake risks in overseas markets, or else face a loss of competitiveness and reinsurance facilities.??

According to R?der, several factors determined whether the earthquake clause was adopted or not. Where insurance was organized under public law, and conducted by public limited companies that were heavily dependent upon the German and Swiss specialist reinsurance companies to cover their surplus risks, insurers proved receptive to the Earthquake Commission?s proposals. This was also true of countries where the general terms and conditions of insurance policies were already subject to public revision, although in Italy this made companies less, not more, willing to embrace the model clause. Less convincing is R?der?s argument that the perception of earthquake risk was also a factor. In fact, the model clause was widely rejected by American and British companies insuring on the Pacific rim, while it was accepted by many German, French and Austrian companies who mainly wrote in their domestic markets where the earthquake risk was minimal or non-existent. In the world?s earthquake regions the chief barrier to the success of the Earthquake Commission, as R?der rightly points out, was market forces, although these are not fully examined in this book. In California, for instance, on the eve of the 1906 earthquake, foreign insurance companies wrote nearly 40 percent of sums insured against fire (net of reinsurance). Of this foreign market share, the British accounted for some 85 percent (my estimate based on insurance losses from San Francisco reported in Australian Insurance and Banking Record, 30 June 1906). The market power of the big British insurance exporters was such that they were easily able to resist German demands for a standard earthquake clause, once they had decided that such a clause was not in their business interests.

Whether R?der is accurate or not in viewing the earthquake clause of 1906 as a major step in the international standardization of insurance policy conditions, his general conclusion is convincing, namely that autonomous self-regulation by business, rather than state legislation, played the primary role in driving this process forward. That he finds this result ?remarkable,? ?surprising? (pp. 240-01) and ?hardly conceivable? (p. 1) perhaps reflects his own background as a German legal scholar steeped in civil code traditions. British and American historians would find it less surprising that the development of statute law lagged behind contractual practice in international business, especially in periods of rapid economic growth. After all, considerable transaction costs and efficiencies were at stake.

Regrettably, a couple of negative points must be raised about the presentation of the text. There are many references abbreviated in the footnotes that, frustratingly, do not appear in the bibliography. The English translation is also rather clunky and inconsistent in places, which may sometimes confuse the non-specialist reader. Nevertheless, these are minor glitches. This is a pioneering study that can be recommended to anyone interested in the history of international business and the contracts and legal standards that came to underpin it.

Robin Pearson is Professor of Economic History at the University of Hull, UK. He has written extensively on the history of insurance, business networks, social capital and corporate governance in journals such as the Economic History Review, Business History and Business History Review. His most recent book, co-authored with Mark Freeman and James Taylor, is Shareholder Democracies? Corporate Governance in Britain and Ireland before 1850 (University of Chicago Press, 2012). R.Pearson@hull.ac.uk.

Copyright (c) 2012 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (December 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Business History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII

Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America

Author(s):Murphy, Sharon Ann
Reviewer(s):Hilt, Eric

Published by EH.Net (March 2012)

Sharon Ann Murphy, Investing in Life:  Insurance in Antebellum America.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2010.  xii + 395 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8018-9624-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Hilt, Department of Economics, Wellesley College.

The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a transformation of the American economy that some historians have termed the “market revolution.”  Financial markets and institutions played a central role in this process, as banks proliferated and securities markets deepened.  In addition, beginning in the 1820s, insurance companies began to offer American households life insurance policies.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, the business expanded rapidly, and by 1870 more than $2 billion in life insurance was in force in the United States.  The companies that underwrote these policies became important intermediaries within the financial system.

Sharon Ann Murphy’s Investing in Life tells the story of the development of the American life insurance industry through the 1870s.  Best characterized as a business history of antebellum life insurance, Murphy utilizes a rich variety of archival records from early companies, as well as newspapers and printed sources, in presenting her narrative.  The book focuses on the strategies employed by the industry’s entrepreneurs to surmount the challenges they faced in establishing and expanding the business.

And the industry faced a great many challenges in its early history. During the first half of the nineteenth century, no tables of mortality or life expectancy existed for the American population, and the vital statistics data necessary for the computations to produce such a table were generally not collected.  Rate-setting was therefore initially based on tables utilized by the English industry, combined with a fair amount of guesswork.  Also legal issues, such as common law restrictions on the ability of married women to enter into contracts, and uncertainty over the claims of a deceased person’s creditors on the payouts of life insurance policies to their families, impeded the industry’s efforts to market their products.  In response to these challenges, prominent figures in the industry worked with both the federal government and state governments to begin collecting mortality data, and to reshape the law in ways more friendly to the industry.

Cultural barriers were important as well.  Murphy persuasively refutes the notion that Americans’ religious beliefs were somehow incompatible with purchasing life insurance, as some scholars have suggested.  Nonetheless, the European experience with using life insurance policies to gamble on the duration of other people’s lives (or worse) made the American population initially reluctant to utilize the industry’s services.  The industry therefore adhered to strict standards regarding “insurable interest” – one could only insure the life of another if a financial interest in that person’s life, such as a debt owed from that person, could be documented.  And the industry emphasized the benefits of safety and security that a life insurance policy could offer to the growing ranks of salaried, middle-class household heads in their advertising campaigns.  As the composition of the population changed, the industry began to change the products it offered as well, for example creating low-cost “industrial” policies for working-class employees in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Although the earliest life insurance corporations were organized as stock companies, starting in the mid-1830s mutuals were created, and quickly dominated the industry.  Murphy argues that the success of the mutual model was not due to the lower rates they initially charged, or to other organizational advantages, but rather to a marketing advantage: the contracts of mutuals offered the appeal of a long-term investment, since the policy holders were entitled to a share of the accumulated profits from their premium payments.  The mutuals thus advertised themselves as “savings institutions” to the middle class, offering something more than insurance to households who might have considered an account with a savings bank. The stock companies responded in the 1850s by offering policies on mutual plans, and by offering tontine or “deferred dividend” plans.

Murphy argues that the Civil War was a watershed event in the industry’s development.  It profoundly disrupted the operations of Northern companies that had underwritten policies on the lives of people residing in Southern states, including some that had insured the lives of slaves on behalf of their masters.  But more importantly, it created an opportunity for the industry to market its services to the men who served in the War, and associate itself with the Union’s cause.  In the end the extremely high rates charged for these policies made them relatively unattractive, and few were sold.  But Murphy argues the industry benefitted from the war because “it revealed to Americans the benefits of insurance” (p. 274), while raising awareness of mortality.  New civilian policies did indeed grow rapidly during the War.

The Civil War created considerable uncertainty over rate-setting, and the industry’s trade association responded by setting an industry standard for war rates.  At least since the 1850s, prominent firms in the industry had attempted to coordinate rate-setting policies in order to reduce the competition they faced from new entrants.  The American states had also established a tradition of imposing high fees on out-of-state companies, in order to protect the underwriters located within their borders.  The industry sought to replace these state regulations with a system of federal regulation, and also challenged state laws that discriminated against out-of-state companies on constitutional grounds.  But in 1869, the Supreme Court ruled in Paul v. Virginia that insurance contracts underwritten by companies across state lines were not “interstate commerce,” and therefore fell within the legitimate purview of state law.

The book’s treatment of the managerial strategies employed in the industry, such as the development of the agency system, the content of the companies’ marketing campaigns, and the details of how different insurance products worked, are particularly strong.  This book makes a fine contribution to the study of the history of the insurance business.  My only criticism of the book is that its focus on management comes at the cost of excluding other questions of potentially great interest.  For example, insurance companies became enormously important financial intermediaries over the nineteenth century, but there is very little analysis or data on the firms’ investments or their role in the financial system.  And although some detail is provided on the content of state regulations of insurance companies, the political economy of these regulations is not explored, nor is much of a comparative perspective on these regulations presented.  Finally, the book mentions that waves of failures occurred in the 1870s, but relatively little attention is given to those events or to other collapses from earlier periods in the industry’s history, which to this reader seem as important as the successes.

Eric Hilt is Associate Professor of Economics at Wellesley College.  He is the author of “Rogue Finance: The Life and Fire Insurance Company and the Panic of 1826” (Business History Review, Spring 2009). Email:  ehilt@wellesley.edu.

Copyright (c) 2012 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (March 2012). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century

The Appeal of Insurance

Author(s):Clark, Geoffrey
Anderson, Gregory
Thomann, Christian
Schulenburg, J.-Matthias Graf von der
Reviewer(s):Murphy, Sharon Ann

Published by EH.NET (May 2011)

Geoffrey Clark, Gregory Anderson, Christian Thomann, and J.-Matthias Graf von der Schulenburg, editors, The Appeal of Insurance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. x + 247 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-4426-4065-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Sharon Ann Murphy, Department of History, Providence College.

Perhaps reflecting twenty-first century concerns about risk mitigation, scholarly interest in the history of insurance has been booming of late.? The fruits of a larger conference on the insurance industry, the ten thought-provoking essays that comprise The Appeal of Insurance are certainly a part of this trend.? While editors Geoffrey Clark (State University of New York at Potsdam) and Gregory Anderson (University of Salford) broadly assert in the introduction that insurance ?shap[ed] contemporary economic institutions, techniques of government, mechanisms of social welfare, and patterns of thought,? the essays are all supposed to pivot around the more narrow concept of ?appeal? and its dual meanings of ?attraction? and ?entreaty? (p. 3).? Yet whereas this unifying thread is readily apparent in several of the essays, a few seem out of place in this volume.? Additionally, the thematic, geographic, and temporal scope of the essays are uneven; more than half focus on the British industry, more than half have their main focus on life insurance, and three-quarters are set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.? While this imbalance does not take away from the quality of the individual essays, the volume might have told a more coherent overall story if the editors (who also include Christian Thomann and J.-Matthias Graf von der Schulenburg, both of Leibniz University, Hanover) had attempted to focus on specific insurance lines before the First World War, while casting their geographic net more widely (at least within Europe).? However, I suspect that this imbalance largely reflects the realities of current insurance historiography.

The essays in this volume that fit together best are those which address the lived experience of individuals who solicited insurance in response to a rapidly changing risk environment.? These essays focus on the timing of demand, the language used to understand the risk environment, and the behavior of insured individuals, pushing back against scholars who posit insurance as a purely rational risk-mitigating strategy.? In ?How to Tame Chance: Evolving Languages of Risk, Trust, and Expertise in Eighteenth-Century German Proto-Insurances,? Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool) examines the participants in two eighteenth-century German widows? funds to demonstrate that risk-averse behaviors (such as joining an association to provide for your wife and children upon your death) were not mutually exclusive from risk-taking behaviors (such as trusting that this untested form of association would not fail before your family benefited from its protections).? As the nexus of trust shifted from providence to expert managers over the course of the century, Rosenhaft offers an intriguing argument that while the participants? understanding and expectation of risk evolved, the acquisition of this proto-insurance did not represent a conscious shift towards risk-aversion over risk-taking.

Robin Pearson (University of Hull) comes to a similar conclusion in ?Fire, Property Insurance, and Perceptions of Risk in Eighteenth-Century Britain.?? In complicating the idea that fire insurance was a rational response to the increasing risk of urban fires, Pearson asserts that this industry owed its growth as much to unempirical factors as it did to the emergence of concrete statistical knowledge, stating that people were both concerned ?about measurable risk and unmeasurable uncertainty, fortune and fate, fear and prudence, passion and reason? (p. 85). Most interestingly, he concludes that the risk-reducing strategy of buying fire insurance was not accompanied by other common-sense measures of fire prevention: ?Prudence was no more an outcome of insurance than it was a product of the science of prediction? (p. 98).

These questions of language and the understood conception of risk continue in Geoffrey Clark and Timothy Alborn?s essays, which both grapple with the moral quandary of placing a monetary value on human life.? In ?The Slave?s Appeal: Insurance and the Rise of Commercial Property,? Clark investigates the legal problems surrounding the underwriting of slaves (who were at once life and property) and how similar dilemmas later emerged with speculative life policies and insurance by wives on their husbands.? By ?knit[ting] economic actors together in novel ways … [s]uch socially degrading commercial contracts threatened not only to upend the established social hierarchy, but also to curtail the economic liberty of the self due to husbands, fathers, and masters? (pp. 67-68).? The paradoxical nature of insurance as both a moral good and an instrument of speculation is sustained by Alborn (Lehman College, City University of New York) in ?A Licence to Bet: Life Insurance and the Gambling Act in the British Courts.?? The highly-contested nature of the 1774 Gambling Act, which was intended to eliminate speculative life policies through ?the determination of a boundary between legitimate and illegitimate insurance,? revealed that the ?insurance market … appealed to all social classes because of ? not in spite of ? the fact that it often shaded imperceptibly into gambling? (p. 109).

While these four contributions mesh together extremely well, the second group of essays moves away from the lived experience of insuring individuals and instead focuses on the reciprocal relationship between the insurance industry and the state.? The essay ??The Rules of Prudence?: Political Liberalism and Life Assurance in the Nineteenth Century? by Liz McFall (Open University) serves as a transitional chapter between these two approaches.? While she also concentrates on issues of language, her focus on ?prudence? is not concerned with how this concept was understood by the insuring public. Rather, she is interested in the promotion of this notion by insurance companies, and how ?[n]ineteenth-century life assurance institutions traded their product in a manner that closely mirrored mainstream currents within Victorian liberalism? (p. 145).? For most of the remaining essays, the idea that ?[l]ife assurance was one of those techniques that seemed to spring up to fill the gap between liberal governmental theory in the abstract and the management of concrete social problems? (pp. 145-146) seems a more appropriate unifying motif than the individual experience with insurance.? For example, the essay ?Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz?s Work on Insurance? by Schulenburg and Thomann is primarily concerned with the assertion by the seventeenth-century scientist and philosopher that ?the government has to install public insurance companies because the welfare of the people is increased if certain risks are securely covered by a public scheme? (p. 44).
???
Like McFall, Gregory Anderson?s interesting piece, ?Honesty, Fidelity, and Insurance in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England,? wrestles with the promotion of an idea through insurance ? this time the notion of fidelity ? and its relationship with governing principles.? As the legal system began to address the emerging problem of white-collar crimes, the insurance industry responded with the creation of fidelity insurance to ?provide protection against acts of dishonesty by trusted employees in public and private companies and by officers of state? (p. 151).? The demands of employers ? and in particular, the state itself who worried about the very real fiscal (and thus political) consequences of white-collar crimes within the growing bureaucratic ranks ? actively shaped the fidelity line. Yet as Anderson reveals, it was always unclear whether this new insurance product actually ?promote[d] commercial stability and security? (p. 160) or rather ?undermine[d] personal morality? (p. 161).
???
This interwoven relationship between insurance companies and government actors is likewise apparent in the essays by Martin Lengwiler and Jer?nia Pons Pons.? Arguing in a vein similar to Anderson, Pons Pons (University of Seville) finds in ?Employers and Industrial Accident Insurance in Spain, 1900-1963? that both a constantly shifting legal environment and the demands of a corporate clientele significantly shaped the development of the accident insurance industry in Spain.? Private employers served as an intermediary of sorts between state-sanctioned requirements and the products offered by insurers: ?Although it is true that employers took out insurance due to the responsibilities the new law had recently obliged them to accept, they soon found advantages in the practice of insurance and, above all, in the control of the insurance process? (p. 202).? The greatest fear of both of these actors (the employers and the private companies) was that the state would proactively try to shape the insurance market. They perhaps feared the type of industrial order that Lengwiler (University of Basle) finds in ?Competing Appeals: The Rise of Mixed Welfare Economies in Europe, 1850-1945.? Lengwiler examines the impact of public insurance plans on the growth of the industrial insurance industry in England and Germany, and the health insurance industry in Germany and Switzerland.? Concerned more with institutional decision-making than the response of the insuring public to these competing plans, Lengwiler perceptively concludes that ?the growing appeal of insurance after the late nineteenth century was provided … by the competition and interaction between public and private actors within the insurance market? (p. 173).?
???
The final essay of the volume, ?Five Ironies of Insurance? by Aaron Doyle (Carleton University and BI Norwegian School of Management) and the late Richard Ericson (University of Toronto), initially appears to be the biggest outlier of the group, yet is actually the greatest missed opportunity on the part of the editors.? Doyle and Ericson reflect on the insurance industry as a whole from a modern perspective, noting ?fundamental paradoxes or tensions in the insurance institution itself? (p. 227) such as how an industry that initially emerged as a means of spreading risks now groups people into ever-smaller risk pools with dramatically different rate schedules, as well as the ?unforeseen and unintended consequences? (p. 233) of an ostensibly risk-reducing product that in actuality encourages risk-taking behaviors.? Rather than closing the book, Doyle and Ericson?s fascinating essay would have been an ideal framework for the entire volume, effectively demonstrating that the contradictions of the modern insurance industry have their roots in historical realities.? While the concept of ?appeal? only works well for a minority of the chapters, ?irony? captures the essence of the majority.? Thus although The Appeal of Insurance suffers from the weaknesses of most conference compendia , its strengths lie in the quality of its individual parts, each of which reflects a maturing historiography that is ready to grapple with the nuances of this essential industry.

Sharon Ann Murphy is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).? Reflecting her continued interest in the complex interactions between financial institutions and their clientele, her latest project is an investigation of the public perception of commercial banks during the early American republic.

Copyright (c) 2011 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (May 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk

Author(s):Maines, Rachel
Reviewer(s):Aldrich, Mark

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Rachel Maines, Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. xiv + 254 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8135-3575-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Aldrich, Department of Economics, Smith College.

In this brief, lively, and thoroughly researched essay Rachel Maines, who is in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, embeds asbestos use in history. Her central thesis is that in modern times asbestos has saved far more lives from fire than it has taken via disease. On balance asbestos was therefore risk reducing. Economic historians have recently written on the causes of the western mortality transition, and this book is in that vein. It should interest all economic historians but especially those concerned with health, safety and the environment.

The book contains a preface, six chapters and two appendices — one a list of end uses of asbestos and the other a partial list of organizations that specified asbestos in codes or standards. There are also copious footnotes and an index but, irritatingly, no bibliography. The first chapter sketches broad themes. Maines reminds us of just how dangerous fires once were. There are two tables and a graph of fire deaths relative to population from 1900 through the 1980s and a brief history of the centrality of asbestos in fire prevention efforts. Not only is asbestos the gold standard of fire prevention materials it is also excellent insulation and Maines hints that for many years in many applications it had few good substitutes. Sprinkler systems might clog; in a hot fire, stone would crumble and iron or steel weaken, but asbestos was fireproof.

This history, Maines argues, is essential to understand the modern asbestos controversy. As she puts it “asbestos was evaluated between 1870 and 1964-1965 against a background of the problems it solved, not of those we were later to learn that it created” (p. 12). Citing Tversky and Kahneman, she notes that framing of issues can affect choices and the diminution of fire risks changed asbestos risk perceptions — a sort of worry homeostasis. Maines claims that those who argue “we should have known better than to use asbestos” (p. 20) are a-historical. Well into the 1940s environmental testing was primitive and medical literature is inherently conservative. It took disaster to yield silicosis regulation and the risks of lead were long known before it was banned from paint and gasoline. Asbestos risk was unclear well into the 1950s, she argues, whereas, fire risks were very clear.

The remainder the book is broadly chronological. Chapter 2 briefly discusses asbestos use from ancient times to 1880. Until the late nineteenth century high costs limited the asbestos market to high value products such as scientific filters. But with modern transportation and mining methods, prices fell after 1870 and asbestos use spread to boiler and pipe insulation, electrical insulation, roofing products and much else.

Chapter 3 discusses the innovation of asbestos curtains to prevent theater fires, the development of building codes, and the use of asbestos in ship construction. The author reminds us of the many disastrous theater fires. Since most originated on stage, a fireproof curtain could significantly reduce mortality, and she rehearses experiments with unsatisfactory alternative materials such as iron. She observes that inevitably and depressingly fire code enactment and enforcement came after such disasters. Beginning in the late nineteenth century the National Board of Fire Underwriters, National Bureau of Standards, National Fire Protection Association and other public and private groups developed codes. These were intended to reduce fire risks and mandated or urged asbestos use in a host of situations. After 1900 in most cities one could not obtain a building permit, or insurance, or a mortgage without using at least some asbestos.

Chapter 4, “Mass Destruction by Fire: Asbestos in World War II,” is misleadingly titled; it also discusses the increasingly use of asbestos during the interwar years as well as hotel fires. Chapter 5 discusses fire prevention after World War II in workplaces, schools and homes. The author again describes a number of horrors such as the 1958 Our Lady of Angels school fire in Chicago that took ninety-five lives. Then she again discusses the impact of these tragedies on local fire and building codes and ends with an extended discussion of the role of national safety organizations in developing model standards and codes that promoted asbestos use. While some of these were performance standards most were more or less specific. Asbestos was sometimes required (“vertical [heat] supply ducts had to be covered with ‘approved air cell asbestos'” (p. 146). Sometimes asbestos was one of several acceptable substances; sometimes it was asbestos “or other approved noncombustible material” (p. 145).

The last chapter is on “The Asbestos Tort Conflagration.” The author explains the tort explosion asserting that several key court cases “made it apparent that the legal profession had an unprecedented opportunity in the relatively helpless situation of American workers … with respect to health care for catastrophic illness” (p. 159). She then critiques the claim that there had been a conspiracy of silence on asbestos disease, provides a brief review of the medical and legal debate, and ends with summary observations of risks versus benefits and the claim that the asbestos claims mess demonstrates the need for national health insurance.

What to make of all of this? The major claim — that asbestos was central to the development of a fire safety system that sharply reduced risks in the years after 1870 and that it became deeply imbedded in professional and legal standards and codes — is convincingly argued. But was asbestos “indispensable”? Maines never fully addresses this but she strongly suggests that in many uses for a long time it had few good substitutes and I suspect that this is correct. She also argues that concerns over asbestos disease could not have occurred until fire risks had diminished. I doubt that tort law is that logical; indeed it has been criticized because it often fails to balance risks and benefits. The claim may have more substance if applied to asbestos regulation but curiously, Maines provides hardly any discussion of U.S., Canadian, or other regulatory efforts.

Maines is critical of the blithe assumption made by asbestos critics that there were lots of good substitutes; yet she never addresses the development of substitutes in the twentieth century and their relationship to the impact of asbestos regulation on fire safety. I was an economist working on asbestos regulation at OSHA in 1979-1980. I recall much interest in substitutes but little concern with fire safety. OSHA did not dare ban asbestos because there was then no known substitute for it in brake linings. (Maines notes that EPA actually did try to ban asbestos and was prevented by a court because of the absence of substitutes.)

The material on building codes is repetitious and the chapter on asbestos torts is too brief. I also wish Maines had provided more detail on the asbestos market. Tables on per capita consumption and end uses would be helpful, as would more information on prices. If the relative price of asbestos fell over a long period then its spread would have been into increasingly marginal uses, a situation that might undercut her claims for its importance. Her discussion of the Underwriters Laboratory Tunnel flammability test could be clearer. Although she notes that asbestos is still the zero point in the test, she fails to explain that the numbers products are assigned are indices and all comparisons are to red oak which is assigned a value of 100. Despite such quibbles for anyone interested in the history of health and safety this is a book worth reading.

Mark Aldrich is Professor of Economics at Smith College. He worked on the development of asbestos regulation at OSHA during 1979-1980. He most recent book, Death Rode the Rails, is a history of railroad safety and is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950

Author(s):Tebeau, Mark
Reviewer(s):Baranoff, Dalit

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

Mark Tebeau, Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 2003. xi + 425 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6791-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Dalit Baranoff, Department of History, Johns Hopkins University.

Scott Tebeau’s well-researched monograph is the latest to tackle the complex story of fire in urban America. Approaching the story from the perspectives of both firefighters and underwriters, he examines the struggles of both groups to bring conflagration, the great scourge of nineteenth-century America, under control. Through detailed investigation of two cities, case studies of two insurance companies, and a wealth of other evidence, Tebeau develops an interwoven story of gender, class, culture, and technology: contrasting the heroics of working-class firefighters with the rational order of middle-class fire underwriters.

Once a communal obligation, firefighting moved into the hands of a corps of volunteer firemen in the American city of the early nineteenth century. Using newly invented leather hoses and hand-pumped fire engines, the volunteers were able to douse fires more efficiently than bucket brigades. Fire companies developed distinct identities and elaborate costumes, and competed with each other through contests of physical strength and speed.

By the middle of the century, urban businessmen, fire insurers among them, were calling for paid fire departments. Viewing the working-class, ethnic volunteers as “disorderly,” they aimed to rationalize firefighting, much as the quantification of risk and the routinization of business practices had begun to do in fire underwriting. After initial resistance to professionalization and the adoption of new technologies such as the steam fire engine, firefighters instead sought to shape the new order to their advantage. Yet even as their departments became increasingly bureaucratized, they were able to carve out a new identity based on occupational specialization. Where firefighters had previously concentrated on putting out fires, by the late nineteenth century, they were increasingly concerned with using ladders and specialized equipment to save lives, and “eating smoke” to reach those trapped in burning buildings.

While firefighters physically battled fire, insurers strove to control its economic consequences through early attempts at actuarial science and the mapping of insurance risk. Only near the turn of the twentieth century did underwriters begin to advocate fire reduction through stronger building codes and the development of industry-wide standards.

Much of the history of firefighting is colored by myth. Early nineteenth-century firemen have been described as hooligans, more concerned with fighting each other than putting out fires. Tebeau offers a more moderate view, showing how volunteers were part of a culture that was reacting to the changes in work and community wrought by industrialization. Tebeau revisits the mores of the volunteers, a masculine, working-class, often ethnic milieu whose conception of virile manhood stood in sharp contrast with emerging middle-class concepts of rational and orderly masculinity. Mid-nineteenth-century middle-class society prized order and propriety. It was to the advantage of the advocates of professional fire departments to play up this image of volunteer firemen as rough and rowdy. The volunteers played a similar game of their own, depicting would-be paid firefighters as incompetent and lazy, and ethnic or racial inferiors.

In the end, rather than be replaced, many volunteers adapted to the new order. While previous historians have often drawn a sharp line between the volunteer forces of the early nineteenth-century and the “professional” fire fighters who followed, Tebeau shows that the change was not so drastic. Many individuals served in both forces. The development of paid fire forces did erode the distinct identities of different firehouses, creating a larger community of men bound by occupational identity.

That occupational identity also was closely bound to the technology that firemen employed. The author’s familiarity with the artifacts of firefighting and their use is impressively deep and consistent, and he successfully integrates it with the rest of the story. When steam engines eliminated the need for pumping, we learn, climbing ladders, scaling the sides of buildings, and performing daring rescues became the new marks of a firefighter’s ability.

Unmistakably, Tebeau chooses the firefighter as the protagonist of his story. The preface explains the identification; his father was a fireman. While the author grants fire underwriters much of the credit for the eventual control of urban fire, their story still comes across as something less than thrilling. Naturally, who wants to be an actuary when he grows up?

Viewed against the backdrop of firefighters’ manly physicality, Tebeau’s insurance men embody another ideal altogether: cool, cerebral, and one could even infer effete. Their main concerns were to manage the economic consequences of fire, and presumably, to earn a profit. Through the quantification of fire risk, underwriters reconceptualized fire in abstract, economic terms, taming it on paper. Tebeau describes the development of new tools that helped insurers reach this achievement: classification systems, standard procedures and forms, and representative technologies such as insurance maps.

To tell this part of his story, the author relies heavily on the records of two firms, the Aetna and the Insurance Company of North America, and also the records of the National Board of Underwriters. Unfortunately, neither firm was representative of the experience of the industry as a whole, and focusing on the national organization gives a misleading picture of the fire insurance industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, when local insurance cartels assumed the leading role in managing fire risk. In his study of Philadelphia and St. Louis, Tebeau takes notice of the local insurance boards, but concentrates almost exclusively on the local fire departments.

Overall, this text has been researched meticulously. The list of archival sources is impressive. An engaging narrative and a fascinating story make this book a rare pleasure — both an academic monograph and a good read. Of most immediate interest to historians of gender and urban America, it should also appeal to economic, business, and labor historians.

Dalit Baranoff recently received her Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University where she completed a dissertation entitled “Shaped By Risk: The American Fire Insurance Industry, 1790-1920.” In addition to continuing her research on the insurance industry, she is also currently participating in a project documenting the Dot Com Era at the University of Maryland.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City

Author(s):Wermiel, Sara E.
Reviewer(s):McSwain, James B.

Published by EH.NET (November 2000)

Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in

the Nineteenth-Century American City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University

Press, 2000. 301 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6311-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James B. McSwain, Department of History, Tuskegee

University.

Sara E. Wermiel, historian of technology and city planner, has produced a

well-researched, clearly written study of the development of

fireproof/fire-resistant buildings in the United States from the late

eighteenth century to the threshold of World War I. Extensive documentation, a

useful glossary, and an excellent bibliographic essay, undergird her analysis.

Her work contains helpful reproductions of contemporary engineering,

architectural, and promotional drawings and sketches.

The drive to build fireproof buildings arose in part out of fear of

conflagration, or a city-wide fire. Many municipalities established “fire

limits,” a zone requiring strict exterior construction standards. This,

however, did not address the flammability of interior materials. Finding a

suitable non-flammable substitute for wood meant designing buildings with

noncombustible floors and roofs. The initial solution was the masonry vault,

or a barrel-shaped, load-bearing span that supported the floor above, and

rested on massive, and expensive, walls and piers. Held back by high costs and

“technical difficulties,” only a dozen masonry vaulted buildings, mainly for

the Federal Government, were put up in the U.S. before 1850. Vaulted buildings

performed well in fires, but had several drawbacks. They had a thorough-going,

anti-human atmosphere owing to the enormous walls, center pieces, columns, and

the “thrust” of the vault arches, that blocked light and used up most of the

interior space of the building.

Wermiel devotes the bulk of her book to the various solutions to the problem

of putting up fireproof/fire-resistant floors and roofs, without resorting to

vault construction. By 1850 U.S. builders relied upon a system of iron beams

and girders (horizontal spanning elements), in between which were brick

arches, quite like the masonry vaults, but not nearly as space-consuming.

Subsequently, wrought iron, having superior tensile strength, replaced cast

iron in framing buildings. Its malleability allowed rolling into “I” shaped

beams thinner and stronger than cast iron.

During the post-1865 construction boom, builders tried a number of

alternatives to brick arches and floors, including iron sheets and concrete,

stone slabs, and various sorts of solid and hollow clay (terra cotta or tile)

blocks. They generally performed well, though often structural iron failed

under intense heat. This suggested that noncombustible materials did not

guarantee the survival of a building. So, the notion of fireproof expanded to

include noncombustible materials that did not conduct heat, which could

distort flanges or other crucial components. In the 1890s building owners

found in New England “mill construction” an attractive model of affordable

fire-resistant construction that featured space separation accompanied by

fire-fighting equipment. Drawing upon this paradigm, the Associated Factory

Mutual Fire Insurance Companies (AFM) made features such as sprinklers,

stairways isolated from floor areas, and exterior access ladders, required

items. The AFM regarded this “slow-burning” construction a superior method

toachieve fire prevention at a comparatively low cost.

In the 1880s elevators allowed buildings to go beyond the six-story limit. To

make the proposed “skyscrapers” fire safe, architects and builders switched

from load bearing walls to a metal framework (skeleton), made of iron or

steel, that carried the weight of the building. However, a major problem to

resolve was egress. The contents of a fireproof/fire-resistant building could

burn and produce deadly smoke, toxic fumes, and blistering heat that killed

trapped occupants, forcing architects and engineers to focus upon how to leave

buildings. In the 1860s fire escapes became the norm for New York city

tenements. Yet, city codes for other public buildings remained dangerously

ambiguous. Boston led the way up to 1900 in imposing strict standards of

egress for many new buildings and all tenements and boarding houses. After

1900 New York city authorities tied egress to occupancy, so that the more

rooms a building had, the more exits were required.

Two fires revealed gaps between code and practice. In 1903 the Iroquois

Theatre in Chicago, outfitted with fireproof floors, roofs, and partitions,

burned, killing 581 people. However, it had steps in front of doors, fire

escapes exposed to flames, inadequate balcony stairways, and no exit signs.

Subsequent Chicago ordinances dealt with all of these shortcomings. In March

1911 the New York building containing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned.

The iron, steel and tile structure survived nicely. Although there were

stairways and escapes, several had doors that opened inward, and one may have

been locked. This led to building codes that redefined adequate egress from

buildings.

Wermiel concludes that the pivotal event of modern fire-resistive construction

was adoption of skeleton frame construction. It brought together existing

fireproofing materials and experience to build fire-resistant tall buildings.

She also argues that since fireproof buildings were so much more expensive

than regular buildings, government contract requirements and code regulations

provided incentives for architects, engineers, and industrial people to come

up with new materials and construction techniques for fireproof projects.

Several observations are in order. Having investigated controversies over

petroleum storage (1901-03), I was aware of insurance concerns over

conflagration in the late nineteenth century. Several names familiar to me

surfaced in Wermiel’s book. Engineers F.J.T. Stewart and William H. Merrill

served as advisors to the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the National

Fire Prevention Association and various consulting committees. I would,

therefore, have enjoyed more information about the role these groups played in

the development of and campaign for fire-resistant materials and construction

techniques. But I cannot fault Wermiel for sticking to her topic. Her work has

whetted my appetite for more explanation, an outcome I attribute only to good

books.

Further, there are important parallels between Wermiel’s book and Thomas J.

Misa’s A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925

(1995). Wermiel points to the crucial role of government in stimulating demand

for fireproof building design and materials. Similarly, Misa explores the

relationship between central governments and an international cartel of steel

manufacturers who monopolized the fabrication of pre-WWI battleship armor.

However, in fireproofing there was much more unrestrained competition among

architects, suppliers, and contractors, than among the armor moguls. Price

considerations played a constant role in fireproof construction versus

traditional wood framing, and in iron and steel production. Here is where Misa

and Wermiel converge, because both address the market for iron and steel rails

and beams. Wermeil is clear about the role price, engineering preferences, and

the shift from wrought iron columns to steel columns, played in making

skeleton construction important to the evolution of fireproof buildings.

Misa’s account of the skyscraper is a bitmore complex and provides crucial

details of how designers and builders came to favor open-hearth steel over

steel produced by Bessemer rail shops. It is also set in the broad context of

urbanization and the push this provided to make better use of space by

building up rather than out.

Wermiel’s book is carefully crafted and informative. Though readers may

benefit from collateral reading in works such as Misa to fill out the context

of certain crucial events in the saga of fireproof construction, Wermiel has

assembled and synthesized a great deal of difficult, technical details to

support her narrative and to sustain her insightful conclusions.

James B. McSwain has recently completed “Energy and Municipal Regulation: The

Struggle to Control the Storage and Supply of Fuel Oil in Mobile, Alabama,

1894-1910,” the first of three related essays on this issue in the Gulf South

(Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston).

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century