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Owning a piece of history.

Talk about staying put. The Mutual Assurance Company was founded in Philadelphia in 1784 and has done business there ever since. What better way to reflect its deep roots in the city than with an art collection that underscores its unusual role in the history of Philadelphia firefighting?

Mutual Assurance's firefighting memorabilia is closely tied to its raison d'etre. Philadelphia's only fire-insurance company before 1784 would not insure houses with trees, fearing that trees would spread fires or hamper firefighting efforts. Mutual Assurance, one of four companies now comprising the Green Tree Group, was founded for homeowners who wanted to keep their trees and their fire insurance.

From the beginning, Philadelphia was very fire-conscious. Founder William Penn had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and wanted to prevent a similar catastrophe. As a result, city streets were built wider than was commonplace to allow fire engines easy access. The houses were mostly brick and stone, surrounded by open spaces.

Some older Philadelphia houses still sport firemarks, a tangible symbol of this preoccupation with fire prevention. British insurance companies, which hired their own fire brigades, first developed the custom of using these plaques to mark insured houses. Their brigades quashed fires only in insured buildings. Although American insurance companies didn't have their own brigades, they upheld the tradition for the advertising appeal. Mutual Assurance's firemark was a lead tree on a wooden shield -- hence the company's nickname, the Green Tree. The firemark still serves as the company logo.

Since volunteer fire organizations were so important to the city, they became very prestigious in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each brigade had its own uniform, often elaborately decorated, that included a hat and an oil-cloth cape. Often, strong rivalries existed between the various fire companies, so the uniforms helped promote solidarity and pride, and they were key to the firefighters' flamboyant annual parades.

To fight fires, the brigades were equipped with fire engines, leather fire buckets for water, hooks, ladders and salvage bags for the homeowner's possessions. Neighbors pitched in, too, because fire engines had to be filled manually and water pressure was limited.

By the 1870s, the mystique of the volunteer fire brigade began to fade as Philadelphia instituted a paid fire department. Although the volunteer organizations still existed, they became more or less social institutions.

But Mutual Assurance has preserved much of this colorful history in its firefighting collection, as well as its collection of portraits, furniture, china and silver. The company acquired its first fire pieces in 1914, when a volunteer fire organization was slowly dying out through attrition. Its remaining members wanted a safe haven for its memorabilia and donated a stovepipe hat, fire horn, funeral ribbon, hat-band and cape to the company.

Today, curator Carol Wojtowicz Smith acquires pieces by corresponding with other collectors and belonging to several collectors' clubs. Once, on a trip to the United Kingdom, a Welsh fire chief gave her a fire engine that had been used to fight fires in rural areas. Smith was thrilled with the gift until she had to decipher the intricacies of British shipping laws to bring it home.

For now, Smith isn't really seeking new pieces. Instead, she concentrates on the collection's conservation needs. For instance, many of the fire hats are made of felt and veneer-coated cardboard that breaks down with age. The engines often sport several coats of paint that mask the wood rot lurking underneath. Even firemarks can deteriorate from white-lead disease, which crumbles the lead paint. Smith tries to stop any further damage rather than to restore the items to their original states. "You never want to undo what's been done to an object over the years, because the history of it is ongoing and isn't fixed at when the product was made."

As if to exemplify that philosophy, the firefighting collection isn't kept locked away but is displayed in the company's headquarters. A late-18th-century fire engine resides in the boardroom, while another, circa 1785, is in the lobby of the executive floor. Smith says employees get a big kick out of the collection, and some even bring family members to see it. And why not? After all, these everyday objects were at one time history in the making.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Financial Executives International
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Corporate Gallery; Mutual Assurance Co.'s art collection
Author:Ferling, Rhona L.
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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