A Mystery Worth Pondering…The Salamander in Our Union’s Logo
The following article is based on a number or reference sources, both historical and speculative, including internet references, academic reviews, scholarly publications, and publications of professional associations. The article is not intended to present a fully accurate summation of how the salamander came to be used as the central focus of our union’s official logo. In fact, the full story may never be known as the original creators of our symbol left no record of their reasoning or intentions. We can, however, draw some defensible conclusions about the creature that adorns our symbol.
We are especially indebted to fellow member Tom Lemmon, former Local 5 Business Agent, for his hours of research in preparing these as part of his course work in obtaining a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in Labor Studies and Union Leadership and Administration through the George Meany Center for Labor Statistics. Brother Lemmon has graciously agreed to our paraphrasing of his research paper entitled “The Historical Significance of the Salamander and Its Relationship with Asbestos and Asbestos Workers.”
The following text was produced for the 100th Anniversary of the Insulators Union:
Every person who has ever received the coveted membership card of the Insulators Union is familiar with the symbol of a salamander perched atop piping over a roaring flame.
Many members down through the years have asked–or have been asked– “Why are you barbecuing that lizard? What does that have to do with insulation or asbestos?”
Typically, the answers range from “ I haven’t got a clue” to long and protracted explanations of the creature’s alleged miraculous ability to withstand both the heat and frost.
To be accurate, the salamander first and foremost is not a lizard. Nor is it a reptile. It is an amphibian resembling a lizard but scale less and covered with a soft, moist skin. In its larval stage, it breathes through gills. Legend has it that the salamander is impervious to fire. These creatures hibernate and often hide in the hollow trees or wood piles in the winter.
They coil themselves up and remain in a torpid state until the spring. For this reason, they can often be found hiding within firewood. When wood is added to a fire, the hidden salamander has the reputation of being impervious to fire.
But here we depart from a biology lesson and scientific speculation. What we really want to know is WHY the salamander exists in our official logo.
For starters, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary gives as its first reference to the “salamander”: a mythical animal having the power to endure fire without harm.
Webster’s second reference described a salamander as an “elemental” being. This definition is attributed to a theory advanced by the medieval alchemist Paracelsus, who maintained that imaginary beings inhabit the four elements making up the physical world: sylphs dwell in fire without harm. Undines are water spirits. They're also called nymphs. And gnomes are little old men or dwarfs dwelling on the earth.
Even earlier in history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384- 327 BC) claimed to know the origin of the salamander.
“On the island of Cyprus where copper ore is smelled and accumulates for many days, animals are developed in the fire…that go happy and running through the fire (and contributing to its own demise) this creature, it is said, will extinguish the fire while passing through it.”
Aristotle’s contemporary, the philosopher Theophrastus (372-287 BC) theorized that:
“If the power of cold is added to a fluid, this cooperates towards the extinction of fire and this property is said to be found in the salamander, for this creature is cold by its nature and the fluid flowing out of its body is sticky and at the same time contains such a juice that it penetrates forward…the animal’s slowness of motion is also of assistance; for the longer it tarries in the fire, the more it will contribute to its (the fire’s) extinction.”
Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Vol. X, notes that the salamander “is so intensely cold as to extinguish fire by its contact in the same way that ice does.”
The word “salamander” is thought to come from the Greek, meaning fireplace.
Meanwhile, the association between the salamander and insulation dates back in history.
It is reported that during Marco Polo’s travels, he encountered Tatars who possessed asbestos cloth that was cleaned by fire. Marco Polo is said to have inquired about the material and was told that the material came from “Salamander’s Wool.”
The word “asbestos” itself comes from the Greek meaning inextinguishable or unquenchable. The material known as asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that may be subjected to intense heat without damage. Its first practical use dates back to the Stone Age when it was used in pottery. The ancient Greeks used asbestos in their cloth napkins and the Egyptians used the material to make shrouds for wrapping mummies.
The first recorded use of asbestos as a material for construction dates back to the Roman Empire and even Old Testament scholars have speculated that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego survived the fiery furnace because they were wearing clothing woven from asbestos fibers.
As an insulating material, we know that asbestos protects building material through its imperviousness to fire and its insulating qualities when subjected to cold. Thus, it takes very little leaps in logic to associate insulation and the salamander.
Belief in the alleged powers of the salamander and that of asbestos was not limited to Europe or the Middle East. The Chinese believed in the power of the salamander to survive fire unscathed. Moreover, the Chinese historian Cou Mi (1230-1320 A.D.) reports on a foot-long piece of fireproof cloth obtained by his grandfather, possibly from Arab traders traveling into China during the Middle Ages. Another Chinese historian, Lin Wai Tai, spoke of entertaining visitors to his house by placing asbestos cloth on a hot stove. He claimed the cloth had been woven from the fibers of a mineral-like coal mined in northern China rather than from the hair of the “fire rodent” (the salamander).
The association between insulation and the salamander remained muddled however, as referenced in the twelfth century manuscript circulated throughout Europe and stating that a certain wondrous area of the Middle East rises a worm-like creature known as the salamander. These salamanders, the manuscript claims, “live in fire and make cocoons, which our court ladies spin and use to weave cloth and garments.” The letter further states “To wash and clean these fabrics, they throw them into flames.”
Returning to Marco Polo’s reports on his travels, we find the following reference:
“Next to the district of Kamul follows that of Chinchitalas, which in its northern part borders on the desert… There is in this district a mountain where the mines produce steel and also zinc or antimony. A substance is likewise found of the nature of the salamander, for when woven into cloth and thrown into the fire, it remains incombustible.”
Out of the mythical, legendary, and historical references to asbestos and the salamander, it is only natural that the salamander would begin to find favor as a symbol of power, prestige, nobility, fraternity, religion, and profession.
Francis I of France, for example, adopted as his badge “a lizard in the midst of flames” with the legend “Nutrisco et extinguo” (I nourish and extinguish). Similar badges, banners and shields have been found throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and China.
Many coats of arms depicted fire-breathing dragons very similar in appearance to a salamander with wings added.
In more modern times, the salamander has appeared in professional association logos, including that of the Salamander Honorary Fire Protection Engineering Society founded in Chicago in the early 1900s and is still in existence as an honor society open by invitation only to those of high academic and field achievement in the area of fire protection engineering,
The Catholic Knights of Columbus borrowed from early Christians the symbol of the salamander to represent the immunity of Jesus to the devil’s temptation and any consequent exposure to the fires of hell.
Paradoxically, Christians and other religions have depicted the dragon (again similar to a salamander with wings added) as a symbol of evil and the punishment of fire. The Middle Age painter Raphael was commissioned to paint the famous “Saint George Fighting the Dragon,” which now hangs in the Louvre.
With regard to the Insulators Union logo, the first reference dates back to before the formal founding of our union. It is believed to have been the symbol of the Knights of Labor’s Salamander Association of New York City, which made the first effort to organize insulators at the end of the 19th Century. The original logo and any record of its creators or their reasoning have been lost over the decades.
But the proud logo that adorns our union offices, letterheads, and other displays of union solidarity is definitely born of a combination of rich legend, history and tradition.
Perhaps in some dusty attic or basement, the prototype of our union’s official logo exists, awaiting discovery. What a rare find it would be.
For the present, however, we can only speculate and enjoy the mystery surrounding the Insulators Union use of the salamander as our symbol.
May it survive for another one hundred years!