Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950.
In his revision of a 1997 Carnegie Mellon dissertation, Mark Tebeau intertwines the histories of fighting and insuring fires. Titled Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950, the book is an awkward juxtaposition of the institutional histories of fire departments in St. Louis and Philadelphia and the Aetna Fire Insurance Company, headquartered in Hartford, Connecticut. Ultimately Tebeau makes a reasonable claim for fire safety regulations as "the most impressive and successful of all Progressive Era reforms" (251), while showing that it took nearly a century of haphazard observation of the calamitous destruction of fires for Americans to adopt building codes and social practices inimical to conflagration. The study, structured around the themes of technological innovation, institutional formation (and dissolution), and work practices, makes some original contributions to our understanding of the insurance industry, fewer to the literature on firefighting.
As a history of the technologies devoted to battling fire the book is useful. Hose technology, Tebeau tells us, allowed volunteer firefighters to separate themselves from the community, who had previously fought fires together with buckets and hope. Steam engines, with monikers like "the Young America," further winnowed the corps of firefighters into a group of professional, municipal employees. (Here it should be noted that Tebeau opts to give firemen more agency than most scholars have done in the transformation of volunteer into paid fire departments; his argumentation is unpersuasive to this reader.) Nevertheless, it was with high-rise ladders and the pompier techniques designed for scaling buildings that the modern fireman--a hero devoted to saving lives--was birthed. If you contrast these highly visible technologies with instruction manuals, actuarial tables, statistical models, maps, and, above all, schedules, then you will understand why the history of fire insurance has been understudied. Yet, it is the technological innovations fire insurers adopted and innovated that, in the end, helped foment an effective understanding of how to prevent and fight fires. Of particular interest is the Gilded Age work of St. Louis's Whipple Fire Insurance Protective Agency; Whipple and his agents essentially performed freelance building inspections whose results were published in a Daily Fire Reporter. By reporting violations of stipulations found in most insurance contracts (placing ashes in a wooden box, for instance), building owners were prodded into adopting safety measures and repairing fire hazards, lest in the case of fire, insurers pointed to the record as justification for not paying out the policy. (186-193) By the same token, fire insurance maps, above all the Sanborn atlases now found in every United States' social historian's tool kit, enabled insurers "to objectify danger," (185) while also standardizing procedures across the industry.
As with the history of technology, Eating Smoke contributes more to the institutional history of insurance than to that of firefighting. It begins with the first fire insurance company in North America, the Philadelphia Contribution-ship, which when formed in 1752 followed pre-modern underwriting practices, to Tebeau's amazement, (61) but entirely in keeping with business practices as a whole during the eighteenth century, even in Franklin's town. In the 1820s, Aetna began to write a limited number of policies for a given area, and thus expanded nationally as it sought business. This practice of spreading the risk no doubt contributed to the company's ability to stay afloat, even as most insurance companies faced bankruptcy. Nevertheless, even Aetna's officers "frequently expressed fatalism about fire" (77); pessimism only tempered in the late decades of the nineteenth century with the development of actuarial procedures and the formation of insurance trade associations. The Progressive Era saw the emergence of a handful of nationally powerful insurance companies who wrote fire policies for commercial and residential real estate. In the standard American history survey, these entities were the subject of regulation, but Tebeau shows us that they too were regulators. They investigated "the entire range of factors associated with municipal fire defense" (257), they educated the public about fire safety through a variety of means including National Fire Prevention Day (1911) and Week (1922), and they succeeded in forcing the passage and enforcement of building safety codes.
The institutional history of firefighting is well known, typically encompassing the fluorescence of volunteer firefighting companies in the antebellum period, their eclipse by paid departments after the Civil War, and their further professionalization during the Progressive Era. Nevertheless, Tebeau takes great pains to demonstrate that between the 1870s and the 1940s firefighting became a profession: he deploys statistical tables (showing that firefighting careers became "longer over time" and that "firefighters' separation from the fire service" increasingly became voluntary) to demonstrate that by the twentieth century firefighting was a distinct occupation with its own culture, routines, and procedures. Sampling personnel files from the St. Louis and Philadelphia fire departments over the course of eighty years seems an extraordinary amount of work for so little pay-off, but it does give this book its old "new social history" credentials.
It is in terms of labor history that Eating Smoke is least persuasive, due mostly to a sloppy and derivative adoption of insights from masculinity studies. Tebeau attempts to take the "cultural turn" by investigating the "work culture" and "work practices" of both underwriters and firefighters, finding that they changed over time as the objectives of each institution were transformed and as the larger context of work changed. This approach wields some worthwhile insights, including an assessment of underwriting as an aspect of changing middle-class identity. Tebeau dilates on the manhood and masculinity of firemen at great length with little attribution, adding nothing new to our understanding of how gender shaped firemen or firefighting. That firemen have embodied traits associated with the most pronounced versions of manliness was a novel component of Amy Greenberg's thesis in Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City (Princeton, 1997), which definitively makes the case that antebellum volunteer fire companies were far more intent on shoring up manhood than feeding class conflict. Moreover, Tebeau overlooks many fine studies of masculinity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including John Kasson's expert rendering in Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man (Hill and Wang, 2001). In the end, scholars interested in firefighting will be disappointed with Eating Smoke, but others will find it useful, indeed essential, as a source of information about the history of fire insurance.
Southern Methodist University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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