Friday, June 23, 2023

"Love in the Age of the Modern Insurance Business—Part I"

From Cabinet Magazine:

Cabinet Is Safe
The emblems of German fire insurance 

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

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

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

Berlin, however, took a different path. In contrast to insurers in Great Britain, the Feuersozietät was from its very beginning a statutory fire insurance company subject to public law, and the city required all citizens to pay a fee in order to be insured. Berlin’s fire brigades were also relatively unified; at first organized at the level of neighborhoods with the support of the police, they became increasingly professionalized and were eventually remunerated by the Feuersozietät itself. Given that fire insurance in Berlin was mandatory and that the firm had been given a monopoly, the Feuersozietät never needed to use fire marks to indicate which buildings they protected. Nor did its enamel marks—which appeared for the first time in the 1920s, after it entered into competition with other companies in suburbs newly incorporated into the newly established Greater Berlin—initially have an advertising function in the narrow sense. They might perhaps best be described as branding par excellence, a word that leads back both to the historical function of a brand—the original fire mark, whose etymological origin lies in the High Old German verb brinnan, to burn—and to its application as an aesthetic tool that signifies economic belonging....