Timeline: a history of home contents insurance

Our homes have changed a lot in the last 100 years. With help from Aviva, we look back at the first time popular household inventions appear in the archive

Today, consumers use home contents insurance to protect the household items and personal possessions that mean the most to them. With the advance of technology, the average home has more to protect. According to analysis from Pew Research Center, two-thirds of American consumers own at least two digital devices – like a smartphone, tablet or laptop – while the increasing popularity of gadgets such as electric bikes and scooters means that our homes are full of belongings that need to be covered.

However it wasn’t always this way. 100 years ago, the cost of an average US home was about $6,000 and the most expensive item inside it was likely to be the wireless radio – if you were lucky enough to have one. As more modern-day inventions arrived on the market, insurers were forced to amend and update policies to keep their coverage up-to-date.

The history of home contents insurance, then, provides an intriguing glimpse into the evolution of domestic life. Thanks to insurance company Aviva, we’ve compiled a timeline of home contents coverage and painted a picture of how life has changed over the last century.

1896 – the motor car

Aviva’s archives show a board meeting from 1896, ten years after Carl Benz first applied for a patent for his ‘vehicle powered by a gas engine’. The minutes of that meeting show a proposal for motor car insurance was to be issued – something which is mandatory in virtually all corners of the globe today. By 1903, Aviva were listing motor claims as a separate category of claims for the first time – but at a time when the vast majority of people had never even seen a car, it was by no means the most popular way of getting around.

Aviva’s ancestor company, The London and Provincial Cycle Insurance Corporation, was established in 1894 to “provide cyclists with a means of insuring their machines at a reasonable rate against accident, fire and theft”. In 1895 the company charged British consumers 10 shillings to insure their bike against accident, fire and theft and 2 shillings, 6 pence to cover cycles just against theft or fire. By March 1897 the company was claiming to be the oldest cycle insurer in the country, and there were approximately 2 million bicycles in the UK.

1907 – the wristwatch

The first mechanical clocks were invented in Europe in the 14th century, so perhaps it’s surprising that man only started mounting them on their wrist in the late-1860s. To be precise, the first wristwatch was made by Swiss brand Patek Philippe in 1868 at the behest of a Hungarian countess – although the first wristwatches for men did not become widely available until the 1880s.

Aviva’s archives show that watches were covered under jewellery insurance policies by The Burglary Insurance Company as early as 1890. A newspaper report from 1890 states that the company insured a firm of jewellers and pawnbrokers in England who were robbed of around 200 gold and silver watches worth an estimated £500 (or £45,000 in today’s money). They were not listed as a specific example under home contents insurance until 1907.

1922 – the wireless radio

The cost of a wireless radio dropped significantly over the course of the 1920s, reflecting developments in technology. Marconi had been manufacturing radios since 1912 and had made an experimental broadcast in the UK in 1920.

The earliest wireless radio proposal in the archive dates from 1922, which probably fits with the timeline of the wireless radio becoming more widely available to the general public. Records show that there was nothing to exclude them from home insurance policies from the 1920s onwards, but policyholders would have needed to list them individually as insurers generally excluded any item apart from furniture, pianos and organs that were less than 5% of the total value insured. Radios were then first specifically mentioned in home policies in 1957, by which time a new type of technology was finding a place in our living rooms…

1950 – the television set

The earliest specific proposal for insurance cover to include television sets dates from 1950, and televisions were first mentioned in Aviva’s home policies in 1857. There was nothing to stop homeowners including televisions as a named possession in home contents insurance as early as the 1920s, although they wouldn’t find widespread popularity for another couple of decades. The first proper TV broadcast in the UK came in 1937 but radio kept hold of its crown until the 1950s, when television overtook it as the most popular broadcast medium. At the beginning of the decade, the television was still a luxury item owned by just 350,000 British households – but by the start of the 1960s, three-quarters of households had one.

1984 – the desktop computer

Into the roaring eighties now and the first time that a computer was advertised for cover for use in the home. Nowadays we are spoiled with a litany of home computing devices from laptops and tablets to smartphones, which allow us to do virtually anything at the tap of a screen. But 40 years ago, at the vanguard of personal computing, the computer was still a rarity, particularly in the home.

Many of Aviva’s predecessor companies were offering cover for computers during the 1970s, but this was aimed at large computer installations in businesses. It wasn’t until 1984 when PCs were first mentioned as part of home contents insurance policies, and at that time computers were only automatically covered for new businesses (existing businesses would have to specifically request cover for any computers they owned). It reflected a boom in personal computing – over 1 million home computers had already been sold in the UK with a value of £300mn, up from £192mn just two years before.

Today, tech-savvy consumers expect home contents cover for a multitude of devices from wireless headphones and gaming consoles to smartphones, tablets and laptops. But a glimpse into the archive books show how much our homes have changed in the last 130 years and how insurance companies have managed to adapt.

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