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Reviewed by:
  • Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950
  • Alexis McCrossen
Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950. By Marc Tebeau ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xi plus 425 pp.).

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 [End Page 770] 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 Contributionship, 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...


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