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Baltimore Equitable Society collection

Identifier: MS 3020


This collection contains records from over 200 years at the Baltimore Equitable Society.


  • 1729 - 1997


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use

The reproduction of materials in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine and satisfy copyright clearances or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections. For more information visit the MCHC’s Rights and Permissions page.

Biographical / Historical

The Baltimore Equitable Society for Insuring Houses from Loss by Fire, Baltimore’s oldest corporation and the third oldest mutual fire insurance company in the country, was incorporated by an act of the Maryland Legislature in 1794. The Society was governed by a board of twelve directors and a treasurer, who served as the Society’s chief executive, all of whom were elected yearly by a general meeting of the members. The first Treasurer was Joseph Townsend (1756-1841), who occupied the office for all but one of the Society’s first forty-seven years of operation. Initially a one-man show, the Society employed a few clerks and surveyors as needed and, upon Townsend’s death in 1841, began to fill the executive offices of Treasurer and Secretary with two people instead of one. Although the 1920s saw the further extravagance of the formal addition of an assistant secretary and assistant treasurer, the Society continued to operate with minimal staff. This conservatism in human resources reflected the carefully circumscribed conditions of the Society’s operation. Its range extended only to Baltimore and its suburbs, and while in the early days, risks were considered on a case-by-case basis, greater experience and sophistication in risk management led the Society increasingly to limit its risks to masonry dwellings. The company’s original charter called for a system of deposits, contributions, and dividends. Upon joining, each member would pay a deposit based on the type of property insured and the desired amount of coverage, initially limited to two-thirds of the full value of the property. Losses by fire, rather than being paid out of the company’s surplus, were funded by the collection of contributions, with each member required to pay a certain percentage of his or her deposit. For members, the upside to this obligation was that the Society’s surplus was dedicated not to losses, but to dividends. Upon the expiration of a seven-year policy, each policyholder took home the original deposit plus a dividend of the company’s earnings proportional to the deposit. As early as the 1850s, the directors and members of the Baltimore Equitable Society began considering modifications to the seven-year plan, seeking to bolster the Society’s membership rolls, and consequently, its surplus, by offering more flexible and appealing schemes of insurance. In 1857, the Society added transient insurance, which allowed for terms of insurance of one, three, or five years and funded itself through the now widely-used system of premiums, rather than the idiosyncratic system of contributions and dividends. Shortly thereafter, the seven-year policy was abandoned entirely in favor of the more unusual perpetual plan. Under the perpetual plan, each member paid an initial deposit (for dwellings, usually about 2% of the amount of coverage effected) and was not subsequently liable for any further premiums. Upon cancellation, the full amount of the deposit was refunded, regardless of whether any claims had been made against the policy. Though contributions might still be levied if necessary, the members and directors foresaw being able to pay its losses out of the surplus fund, which proved to be the case. By the late nineteenth century, the introduction of the perpetual policy had achieved the desired effect of increasing the membership rolls and surplus of the Society. With this increased prosperity came one of the few moments of controversy in the Society’s history. In 1890, a group of policyholders, roused in part by the Society’s decision to increase the amount of deposit required for insurance of certain commercial risks, advocated an amendment to the charter providing for the payment of periodic dividends from the Society’s surplus. A committee of prominent members appointed by the board of directors to study the matter concluded that, Baltimore being due for a great fire, the surplus should be left alone. At the next general meeting, an overwhelming majority of policyholders voted to affirm the committee’s findings. Thirteen years later, the Baltimore Equitable Society made good on all of its losses incurred in the Fire of 1904. As the twentieth century progressed, the Society’s officers showed an increasing interest in the their organization’s historical significance. In the 1920s, the Society’s sixth Treasurer, George Corner, established up the Museum of Firefighting History on the upper floor of the Society’s offices, showcasing the Society’s history as well as that of mutual fire insurance and firefighting in general. In the following decade, Richard Hart of the Enoch Pratt Free Library was recruited to catalog the museum’s publication collection and to produce a history of the Society to celebrate its approaching sesquicentennial. While this project seems not to have come to fruition, the efforts of Hart and especially Assistant Secretary Amherst B. Hall to organize the Society’s records up to that point are evident throughout the collection.


300 Linear Feet (400 boxes, 198 Oversized Volumes)

Language of Materials



The collection is arranged into four distinct series, which are further divided into subseries. Records within each category are arranged chronologically.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Baltimore Equitable Society Collection was placed on permanent deposit at the H. Furlong Baldwin Library of the Maryland Historical Society in 2003 by the Baltimore Equitable Society.

Scope and Contents

The Baltimore Equitable Society Collection spans the years 1729-1997, with most material dating between 1794 and 1991. The vast majority of the materials in the collection were generated by the Society’s small workforce, where division of labor was inconsistent, fuzzy, or non-existent. The principal series into which the collection is divided are thus oriented toward the purpose of each record or record set. Insurance Records are those records directly involved in writing policies, managing risk, and paying losses. Financial Records consist of records of accounting, banking, and investment activities. Administrative Papers include minutes, correspondence and miscellaneous documents generated by the Society’s officers and directors. Also included here are personal records of many of the Society’s officers. Museum Records and Collections consist of publications, manuscripts, prints, and photos, as well as extensive correspondence mostly relating to the provenance of the collections. At the heart of the collection are the records of approximately 100,000 policies written by the Society from 1794 through 1991. Containing data related to construction, ownership, and value of these properties, the three sub-series of “Records of Policies” are the logical starting point for research in genealogy, architecture, and economic history. Records of the Society’s ground rent investments, though unrelated to the underwriting side of the business, provide a further resource for property research.

The bulk of the collection occurs in bound volumes, most of which remained consistent in format and usage for long periods of time. Changes of varying significance in the Society’s record-keeping schemes are evident at several junctures, most salient of which is the conversion in 1967 to a computer-based system. Most of the major series of volumes were discontinued in the following years, though a few were kept up-to-date into the 1980s. Excepting the absence of a Risk Book for the period 1812-1833, the major sub-series of Insurance and Financial records are complete for entire span of years during which they were kept. Administrative records tend to be much less comprehensive. Several gaps exist in the Minutes of Meetings of the Board of Directors, and they are absent entirely from 1939. Records of the board’s committees and of the general meetings are generally sparse, as is correspondence past 1908.

Guide to the Baltimore Equitable Society collection
Under Revision
David Angerhofer
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2020-09-09: Manually entered into ArchivesSpace by Mallory Herberger.

Repository Details

Part of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library Repository

H. Furlong Baldwin Library
Maryland Center for History and Culture
610 Park Avenue
Baltimore MD 21201 United States