Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: The NH Fire Insurance Company gains a strong footholdBy Aurore Eaton
April 01. 2013 6:24PM
During its first 17 years of existence, the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company offices were on the second floor of the Merchants Exchange building on the east side of Elm Street. One of the company's early employees was Frank W. Sargeant. Hired in 1882, he would work his way up through the ranks to become company president, a position he held from 1904 to 1938.
In 1942 Sargeant reminisced about his first months with the company, "One of my duties was to take care of the fires. We had stoves for heating purposes which meant taking out the ashes, and I presume I was janitor and office boy as well as clerk. In those days we had no running water in the building and it was necessary to go across to the city hall where there was a public fountain. and we had a large stone pitcher which we could fill and carry back to the office with us." Manchester's water works project had progressed to the point where, by 1874, water from Lake Massabesic was being distributed through pipes into the city, but it took several more years for the system to become widely used. Sargeant explained that he and his coworkers would occasionally sneak into the offices of Daniel Clark, an attorney who worked down the hall, to steal water from his tap.
The insurance office was open six days a week, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then from 7 to 9 in the evening. When it was cold, someone would spend the night there to keep the fires going. Female employees were rare. The first woman was hired in 1893, but she would have to wait 10 years for a second female staffer. By 1910, the company began to hire more women workers, and soon this reliable workforce became indispensable to the company.
Sargeant was promoted to the sales force in 1889. He wrote, "At that time a special agent didn't enjoy the luxury of a high-powered car. I was forced to take a train into the large or small towns and of necessity stay there overnight, and in many of the smaller places the accommodations were nothing but a boarding house. It was necessary to hire a horse and carriage in order to adjust losses or make inspections which generally meant an early start in the morning and work at least until darkness which made a long day during the summer months.We were forced to live with the natives and that way came to know them well."
By the early 1880s the company had outgrown its space in the Merchants Exchange building. It constructed its own headquarters across Elm Street that provided enough room to grow, plus space to rent to other businesses. This elegant three-story building had an ornamental façade of handsome Nova Scotia sandstone. When it was completed in 1886, the building gained notice for its architectural engineering as a "slow burning" or nearly fire-proof structure. A company official wrote in later years, "When it erected the building. (the company) adopted the most advanced structural ideas of the time and put up a home that.was the best in the city in point of safety." The decision to invest in its own building proved to be quite fortunate, as the Merchants Exchange nearby would burn to the ground in a spectacular fire in 1914.
The company rapidly expanded out from New England until it reached into half the states in Union. By the time of its silver anniversary in 1895, the company had a sales force of 550. It had issued over a million policies, and had brought in over $11,000,000 in premiums against losses of $6,100,000. Its employees, officers and stockholders celebrated with a grand banquet at the Manchester House on Elm Street. Founder John C. French, always a practical man, gave a sober speech. He stated ".the business of fire insurance is perplexing, dangerous, perilous, extra-hazardous and unprofitable." He pointed out that 946 fire insurance companies had failed in the U.S. during the company's 25 years of existence. This startling figure reminded his colleagues to put New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company's success into perspective and not to take anything for granted.
Next week: San Francisco burns, and the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company comes to the rescue!
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org