The Making of a ‘Fearful Havoc’
NFPA tracts take on the danger of the wooden-shingle roof.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
"Members are urged to unite in a persistent campaign in their home cities and towns for the abolition of the wooden shingle roof," wrote NFPA Secretary Franklin H. Wentworth in a 1914 tract entitled The Evil Wooden Shingle. Most buildings, the pamphlet warns, "possess a special and particular menace…This menace is the wooden shingle."
Wooden shingles not only ignite easily, Wentworth wrote, but "burning shingles can be carried great distances by the wind or draught of a conflagration and when they alight in their turn upon other dry shingles, they make fearful havoc."
An example occurred in June, 1914, when flying brands from a conflagration in the "shingle-roof district" of Salem, Massachusetts, set 12 fires in Marblehead, over a mile away. The fire destroyed 1,600 buildings in Salem, proving "conclusively the theory that a city built to burn seldom disappoints," according to The Menace of the Wooden Shingle, a brochure NFPA published in 1926 that featured the photograph above.
In Menace, NFPA upped the ante in its crusade. Without citing statistics, the brochure noted that the wooden shingle "has been the cause of incalculable loss of property because of its susceptibility to ignition from sparks; and through its efficiency in communicating fire it has been the known culpable factor in the rapid spread of most of the largest conflagrations on record." It went on to state that "any kind of a roof is a safer roof than one of wooden shingles."
Why, then, did opposition to legislation requiring fire-safe roofing develop whenever it was proposed? In a word: complacency. "It seems to be characteristic of Americans to refuse to be weaned from the bottle of blind complacency by the mother of experience," offered the author of Menace. "But the real factor with which it becomes necessary to cope whenever any educational project is attempted is the self-satisfied, smug, contented American passiveness. It must be shaken, it must be blasted out, the vulnerable spot in our careless civilization must somehow be reached."
Wooden shingles are still around, and still pose a threat to life and property. What would Wentworth think?
— Kathleen Robinson