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The history of Spain’s ‘Insured for Fire’ building signs

The plaques first appeared in the country in the 19th century but started to disappear after city halls began to employ their own professional firefighters

A plaque on a building in Madrid says it is “insured for fire.”
A plaque on a building in Madrid says it is “insured for fire.”Anabel Bueno

You’ve probably seen plaques with the message “Asegurada de Incendios” (Insured for Fire) on many buildings in Spain. Maybe you wondered why they were there, and what purpose they served. Most of them can be found in the historical center of cities, because they date back to the 19th century. These plaques do not just indicate, as you might guess, that the buildings were insured for fire (today a sign is not needed to show that a place is insured), but also shed light on the origin of insurance companies and professional firefighters in Spain.

When every city council began to have its own fire department, the fire-fighting teams of insurance companies began to disappear

To understand the value of these plaques, we must travel to London in 1666 during the great fire that razed a large portion of the city, destroying more than 13,000 houses and iconic landmarks, such as St Paul’s Cathedral. This tragedy led economist and building developer Nicholas Barbon to create The Fire Office, the first office specializing in fire insurance for houses and buildings, according to the book Historia del Seguro en España (or The History of Insurance in Spain), published by the Mapfre Foundation.

The fire in 1666, which started in the oven of a bakery and spread quickly through houses that were made mainly from wood, lasted for three days and three nights as the city had no professional fire department. Indeed no city had at the time had one. That’s why Barbon also decided to create a specialized group of firefighters that would put out blazes in the buildings insured by The Fire Office. To make these buildings easily identifiable, he affixed them with plaques featuring his company’s logo: a phoenix.

In Spain, the plaques began to appear during the 19th century, after the creation of the first insurance company in 1822 – the Mutual Insurance Company of House Fires in Madrid. These signs, however, did not feature a logo but the message “Insured for Fire.”

“They began to use other materials to make [the plaques], such as iron, copper or tin, and as they proliferated more insurers began to create more striking and colorful designs for these signs, which also served as advertisements,” says Guillermina Jodra, coordinator of the Zaragoza Museum of Fire and Firefighters.

The museum in Zaragoza, in Spain’s northeastern Aragón region, recently hosted an exhibition on fire insurance plaques which included designs from Madrid and Barcelona, as well as from other Spanish cities, such as Zaragoza, and other European countries.

Indeed it was the design of these insurance plaques that caught the attention of Laura Arribas, an interior architect interested in the heritage of urban graphic design, who decided to photograph and “collect” these plaques on an Instagram account called asegurada.de.incendios.

“It surprised me that it didn’t occur to anyone to bring together these plaques, which can be seen in almost all the buildings in the center of Madrid,” says Arribas, who only takes photos of signs in the Spanish capital with their exact address.

In Madrid, many plaques have been preserved because the historical center was granted cultural heritage status (BIC) in 1995. Also, as historian Juan Sisinio Pérez explains, “because it was the capital, there was a much larger population [in Madrid] and therefore a higher risk of fires spreading through buildings, as well as greater purchasing power to buy insurance plans.”

According to The History of Insurance in Spain, during the second half of the 19th century, insurance companies began to proliferate, as did mutual fire insurance associations, which were made up of homeowners. The latter, lacking their own firefighting team, “started to create agreements with the municipalities in order to organize and pay for firefighting services,” which, the book explains, led to the “creation of modern municipal fire services.”

As Pérez explains, the closest thing to a fire department that Spain had in the 19th century were sappers, a group of volunteers dependent on the National Militia, created by Spain’s first constitution, the Cádiz Constitution of 1812. “This body of volunteer citizens had the task of maintaining public order, which included putting out fires, but was definitively dissolved in 1944,” says Pérez, who is the author of the book Milicia Nacional y Revolución Burguesa, El Prototipo Madrileño: 1808-1874 (or National Militia and Bourgeois Revolution, the Madrid Prototype: 1808-1874).

“The growth of cities in the last third of the 19th century raised the need to create a municipal fire-fighting body with staff trained for this specific job, like local police or other auxiliary bodies,” he adds.

Firefighting became professionalized in 1894 in cities such as Madrid (then known as Villa de Madrid), and in 1931 in Zaragoza, according to Jodra, the Zaragoza museum coordinator. “When every city council began to have its own fire department, the fire-fighting teams of insurance companies began to disappear little by little, as there was no longer any need for them and they stopped putting up new plaques,” she explains.

Today, although firefighters are no longer employed by insurers, they continue to be indispensable to these companies. In recognition of the fire-prevention and firefighting (including rescue) services provided by these public professionals, the Spanish Union of Insurers and Reinsurers (Unespa) – which includes the majority of insurance companies in the country – annually makes a “special contribution“ to Spain’s regions and city halls.

English version by Nell Snow.

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