Salamander Story

The Story of Our Salamander

The centerpiece of the logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union is a salamander contentedly perched on a pipe above a crackling camp fire. Tom Lemmon, a member of Asbestos Workers Local 5 in San Diego and a 2003 graduate of the National Labor College, has wondered about the salamander’s connection to asbestos for a long time. In 1985, as an apprentice, he came across a tantalizing clue in Paul Brodeur’s best-selling exposé, Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial. In the midst of a brief history of the mineral and its uses, Brodeur refers to a story from The Travels of Marco Polo (1298) in which the Venetian merchant tells of seeing a tablecloth in China that was cleaned by being thrown in the fireplace. When Marco asked his hosts what the tablecloth was made of, they told him “salamander’s wool.” Believing he had found the link for which he had been searching, Lemmon shared the story with his fellow apprentices and apprentice instructors. None of them, however, had ever heard of an association between salamanders and asbestos; and they all refused to believe that one existed, especially one that was hundreds of years old and known throughout the world. Seventeen years later Lemmon decided to explore the connection more fully in his 2003 National Labor College Senior Thesis, “The Historical Significance of the Salamander and Its Relationship with Asbestos and the Asbestos Workers.” In it he briefly describes the physical properties of asbestos and the history of its uses from ancient times to the present, including its service as the funeral garb of Egyptian pharaohs and as cloths with the magical powers to resist flames and impress would-be adversaries (the Roman Emperor Nero [38-68 AD] and Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire [742-814 AD] both had one). He also recounts the long-standing belief in the magical powers of salamanders, which were widely thought to be both fire-resistant and poisonous. References to these powers can be found in Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), as well as in many later Talmudic and Biblical commentaries, medieval bestiaries (catalogs of the wonders of nature and the animal world produced monks and theologians as proof of God’s infinite fecundity) and early modern works of alchemy and natural philosophy (including those of Sir Francis Bacon [1561-1626 AD], the best known champion of the experimental method).

Having established the broadly-based character of a belief in the fire-resistant powers of asbestos and the salamander (the former, to be sure, real, the latter only mythic), Lemmon then offers several examples of “the legend of the salamander as it relates to asbestos.” He quotes European, Chinese and Arabic sources linking the two. Given their long-established and widespread association, Lemmon concludes, quite soberly, that the use of a salamander as a logo for an organization of pipe coverers was “not unreasonable.” Further to underscore the point, he goes on to quote from an 1887 advertisement in The New York Times announcing that “two genuine fireproof salamanders, the far-famed beast, … [which] made itself so generally disliked in the Jurassic period [the age of the dinosaurs] that it has constantly been remembered in history, both sacred and profane, in myth, tradition and folklore, through all the centuries since men used signs for writing[,]” had at last been captured and could be seen, free of charge, in New York City. And then, in the coup de grace, Lemmon quotes from the official Asbestos Workers history, posted on its website, to the effect that: “The first attempt to form a national bond between insulation associations came in 1900, when the Salamander Association of New York City (which took its name from the reptile [actually an amphibian] that according to legend had a skin that was impervious to fire) sent out an appeal to related crafts in other cities to form a ‘National Association of Pipe and Boiler Coverers’.” The salamander in all likelihood thus made its way into the asbestos workers’ logo from a local union in New York that called itself the Salamander Association. The name would have occasioned no surprise at the time, Lemmon’s work reminds us.

Among other proofs, the fi re-resistant powers of the “far-famed” salamander were well-enough known to serve as the basis of a carnival sideshow attraction. Indeed, there was (and is) no better symbol available. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word “salamander” has been long “applied to various articles used in fire or capable of withstanding great heat,” including asbestos and its by-products (as in “salamander’s wool” or “salamander’s stone”), hot irons and pokers, and drums or boxes intended to hold hot coals. In fact the term was in common use at the end of the nineteenth century, on evidence of the OED’s examples, in both the workplace and the home, wherever fires were required. Say “salamander” to most people at the end of the nineteenth century and they wouldn’t first think of the four-legged amphibian but rather of an implement to protect themselves from being burned when they worked with or near a fire. Knowing that a “salamander” is not always a salamander helps to explain the most glaring anomaly of the scene depicted on the logo: there is no insulation in it. The pipe on which the salamander sits is in fact quite bare; it is not insulated. Or at least it does not seem to be so—until we realize that the presence of the salamander explains the absence of the insulation. The “salamander” is the insulation. Just as the word “salamander” did not always refer to the animal but was equally likely to refer to “various articles used in fire or capable of withstanding great heat,” so, too, does the picture of the salamander refer not to the actual animal but to the asbestos material of the same name.

It is a brilliant stroke by the unknown artist, a moment of revelatory genius, which unfortunately is lost on all those who have forgotten or never had the opportunity to learn the long and colorful history of the salamander and its association with asbestos, among other wondrous things. Mr. Lemmon deserves our thanks for re-opening the question for us. A closer look at the other elements of the design in fact reveals other now forgotten but once well-established beliefs and practices that played an important role in the early history of the asbestos workers and the trade union movement more generally. Two features of the design in particular cry out for further investigation: the fire is built on a tiled floor and the smoke from the fire appears not as a column rising from the floor but as a cloud hovering over the pipe. What is going on here? The tile floor is in some ways the most obvious. Who makes a camp fire on a tiled floor? It is conceivable that tiled floors were common to boiler rooms where much insulation work was performed and that the tile in the logo is therefore simply a depiction of things as they actually were.

Without an extensive foray into the architectural and construction history of factories and similar sites, it is difficult to say. More likely, the logo’s tiled floor is a conscious echo of the floors common to Masonic meeting halls (and to the many emblems created to represent them). One thing seems certain: Whether the artist intended to or not, a large number of those who saw the logo were very likely to make the connection to Freemasonry for themselves. For just as most Americans at the end of the nineteenth century would know that “salamander” referred not only to an amphibious lizard but also to a mythical creature with supposed fire-resistant properties (and, indeed, to anything that could withstand heat), so, too, would most be familiar with the checkerboard pattern of the floors of Masonic meeting halls, if only from the ubiquitous representations of them. Nor is that all. The cloud hovering over the salamander would have immediately reminded most of those who saw it of the “All-Seeing Eye” or “The Eye of Providence” also common to Masonic symbolism. It is familiar today from the back of the one-dollar bill, where it forms the apex of the pyramid—another Masonic symbol (since the more elaborate Masonic rituals trace the organization’s origins back to the ancient Egyptians).

A symbol of God, the “All-Seeing Eye” typically occupied a place at the top of what ever scene it surveyed. It was also often surrounded by a cloud. There is no eye to be seen in the cloud in the Asbestos Workers’ logo. But its placement and relation to the other elements of design certainly suggest that its presence. The cloud completes and balances the image, suggesting smoke but also—floating as it does at the top of the circle rather than rising in a column behind the scene—evoking, if only unconsciously, the Masonic symbol of Providence. To be sure, neither of these elements is identical to their Masonic counterparts. Fraternal organizations, in general, and the Freemasons in particular, played an important role in the history of the labor movement. But to copy the Masonic symbol exactly would have offended those insulators who belonged to other fraternal organizations or to none at all. By merely alluding to them, however, the designer can it both ways. He could conjure up a set of associations in the minds of at least those who understand the code without offending those outside the fold. In brief, the logo of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union is constructed almost wholly out of esoteric symbols drawn from the mythological vocabulary of early modern alchemy and natural philosophy and from the symbolic vocabulary of the secret fraternal organizations that were both inspired by and inspired the first unions.

Today there are many fewer fraternal organizations than there once were, and many fewer people who are even aware of their previous influence. At one time, however, they played a prominent role in the social and civic life of a large number of American and European men, especially. There isn’t space for the actual whys and hows of all this here. But it is important to note that the first artisan societies and journeymen’s associations established in both Europe and the U.S. in the eighteenth century, were fraternal organizations, like the Masons. Members pledged social support and good conduct to each other and often in secret. In so doing they hoped by their collective action, enjoined and secured by nothing more than their oaths of loyalty, to provide each with an opportunity to secure their own self-improvement. The trade union movement as we know it today is rooted in that tradition of fraternal organization, collective action, personal loyalty and self-improvement. It is that tradition, as well as the tradition of popular science and natural philosophy, that the Asbestos Workers and their logo both refers to and carries on.

This article is a collaboration of Thomas Lemmon, a member
of Local 5 Los Angeles, and the editorial staff of Labour’s Heritage.
It is used with Brother Lemmon’s consent