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In modern times, it takes a lot to keep a business running smoothly. From providing quality goods and/or services to obtaining the proper permits and liability insurance, staying in business is a multifaceted process. Business owners of the 18th century faced their own set of challenges, such as the threat of fire damage to property.

Especially in Colonial America, building codes weren’t nearly as strict in the 1700s as they are today, and architectural styles varied greatly, depending on the cultural influences within particular regions. For example, construction on Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors, considered the first European-American government building in the New World, began in 1610 and blended Spanish and Native American architectural techniques. On the East Coast of America, where England was the dominant influence, government buildings of the 18th century were primarily constructed in the classical Georgian style.


As property insurance wasn’t available until the latter half of the 17th century, Colonial property owners often took drastic measures to keep their buildings safe. For instance, the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, was built in the 1630s, and hex signs carved on its fireplace timbers were believed to help ward off both fire and witches. The oldest standing timber frame house in North America, Fairbanks House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.


We’ve come a long way from hex signs as a fire deterrent. Today’s savvy business owners should take all necessary measures to protect themselves from possible litigation, from obtaining liability insurance to ensuring adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access guidelines.

Fighting Against Fire Damage

Throughout the 1700s, one of the biggest threats to a businesses' livelihood was fire. And it was 1666’s Great Fire of London that fueled the demand for property insurance among business owners in Europe and Colonial America. At the time, those renting rooms and commercial spaces in London were liable for repairs rather than landlords, including costs incurred from fire damage.


The world’s first fire insurance company for frame and brick homes was established in London in 1680, and within a decade, 10% of London's houses were insured. American settlers were a bit slower in establishing their own insurance companies, however. Benjamin Franklin was one of the early champions of property insurance, helping to establish the nation’s first mutual insurance company in 1752. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire was a co-op of sorts; members made equal payments towards the contributionship, which ultimately paid for repairs following fire damage to a member’s property.


Property insurance of the 1700s is effectively the predecessor to modern small business insurance policies, which help protect a business owner against legal claims stemming from liability issues. Today, there are several types of liability insurance available to business owners, including general liability and professional liability. Fire and other forms of property damage typically fall into the general liability category.

Public Accommodation and Innovations of the 18th Century

While liability insurance became an important aspect of business ownership in the 1700s, ensuring reasonable access to customers was largely overlooked. Roadways and business entrances of the 1700s were often difficult to traverse even for the able-bodied, and nearly impossible for those with physical disabilities. The use of wheelchairs became more commonplace in the 18th century, especially in medical settings, but business owners were not required to reasonably accommodate those confined to wheelchairs. 


Modern business owners must adhere to accessible design standards outlined in Title III of the ADA, but no such requirements were in place in the 18th century. According to Title III of the ADA, “all new construction and modifications to public accommodations and commercial facilities must be built in compliance with the ADA’s requirements for accessible design.” Buildings constructed prior to 2010 that are also deemed historical, such as the Fairbanks House, must comply to the maximum feasible extent. But if adhering to ADA Title III standards would possibly threaten or destroy the historic significance of a building or facility, alternative methods of access are permitted.


A building’s historical significance is also taken into account when other types of repairs or renovations are necessary, such as updating plumbing systems. Indoor plumbing systems of the 18th century were rudimentary at best, so leaking pipes didn’t pose a liability threat as they often do today. To avoid the possibility of slip and fall injuries and subsequent lawsuits, modern business owners should be on the lookout for plumbing issues and have them repaired promptly. Possible signs of leaking faucets and fixtures include rust or water puddles, squeaky faucets, and water bills that are higher than normal.

Modern Business Liability Concerns

Business owners should be aware that plumbing issues are only one of the conditions that can lead to a slip and fall injury, however. Natural conditions can be a culprit, such as icy sidewalks, but negligence may also be a factor in slip and fall accidents. Customers may slip or trip due to bunched up rugs or carpets, poorly lit stairwells, defective or poorly designed stairs, and more.


In the 1700s, customers injured at a place of business didn’t have an avenue with which to pursue legal compensation. But modern business owners don’t have that luxury. The concept of negligence was introduced to the realm of personal injury law in 1932 and altered the liability status of business owners into the foreseeable future. Thanks to the innovative minds of 18th-century entrepreneurs, who helped bring the concept of property insurance into the mainstream, modern business owners and customers alike are much more protected than their historic counterparts.

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.