Philadelphia is a fun city that brings back a lot of memories for me. I took a deposition of an insurance claims manager from Maiden Re yesterday and then spent some time with Kevin Healey of my firm wandering around Philadelphia thinking about the history of our country and this great historical American city.
Benjamin Franklin, a citizen of Philadelphia, has long been one of my favorite American heroes. In my mind, he should be considered "the Father" of American insurance. An interesting article by Michael White titled How Benjamin Franklin Became the “Father of American Insurance” indicates an interesting anecdote to Franklin’s risk management prowess at the ripe old age of twenty nine:
In the spring of 1730, a major fire broke out in Fishbourne’s wharf in Philadelphia, destroying stores and homes and threatening to consume the entire city. Till then, the city owned only one old engine (a cart with a hand-pump, water barrel and hose), a few leather buckets and wooden ladders. Panicked by this fiery disaster and generally unprepared to fight the ever-present danger of fires, Philadelphia purchased three additional engines, 20 ladders, 25 iron hooks (attached to long wooden poles and used to pull down burning walls), and 400 buckets and stationed this equipment at various strategic spots around the city. Still, the great danger of a massive, citywide conflagration persisted, since there was no organized fire-fighting force and the equipment was extremely primitive.
On February 4, 1735, following another fire, a most interesting letter on the subject of preventing and extinguishing fires appeared in The Philadelphia Gazette, a newspaper that had the largest circulation in colonial America. The letter, presumed to be written by an old citizen who had considerable experience with and knowledge of fires, contained well-reasoned advice, offered numerous reforms and told of the formation in a "city in a neighboring province" of a "society of active men belonging to each fire engine, whose business is to attend all fires whenever they may happen. Besides becoming proficient from practice, these men hold quarterly meetings to talk over how they can improve their methods. Since the establishment of the Society," observed the letter writer, "there has been no extraordinary fire in that place."
Additionally, the author admonished Philadelphians to carry burning coals from one room to another "in a warming pan and shut," and he proposed prohibiting "too shallow hearths" and wooden moldings on each side of the fireplace. He advised that chimneys be cleaned more carefully and frequently and that chimney sweeps be licensed and held liable and fined for any chimney fire that occurred within 15 days of a chimney cleaning. In the spirit of his suggestions, the letter-writer remarked: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
The letter aroused Philadelphians to form the city’s first fire-fighting organization. It’s author? Benjamin Franklin, of course, then the 29-year old publisher of the Gazette, who was soon to create America’s first organized fire brigades and found the incipient nation’s first fire insurance company, The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire.
Benjamin Franklin is often thought of as one of America’s founding fathers and an extraordinary patriot. Sometimes we forget the significant role he played in developing the American insurance industry in Philadelphia.
My mother was raised in Philadelphia. I lived here with her when my father was stationed at a military base on a South Pacific atoll when I was a toddler. My son, Chase Merlin, now goes to school in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. For anybody that has been through this city, it is hard not to get a sense of how important Philadelphia was in guiding our country’s history and founding. Benjamin Franklin was at the heart and founding of it all. It is no wonder that he also appreciated how important the social product of insurance is to the growth of the American economy and culture.