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There is mighty speculation as to the origin and practices of early firefighting and firefighters in America.
Though colonial records are few, some do exist and those pieced together provide us with a possible picture. In 1608, fire reduced the desperate survivors of Jamestown to a people without winter shelter or provisions. Not long after, in 1623, fire became the mortal enemy of the Mayflower colonists as well. Reporting a warehouse fire, their governor, William Bradford, said, “This fire was occasioned by some of the sea-men that were roystering in a house wher it first begane, making a great fire in very cold weather, which broke out of the chimney into the thatch, and burnt down 3, or 4, houses, and consumed all the goods and provisions in them.” (1)
Thatch, wood, and wattle (common building supplies of the time) made excellent kindling for vigorous fires, the colonists learned. In 1630, the selectmen of the city of Boston - finally smarter - instructed, “Noe man shall build a chimney with wood nor cover his house with thatch.”(2) This would be America’s first fire regulation. Sometime later, in New Amsterdam, similar regulations were coming to the fore, including the following regulation: Fire ladders, hooks, and buckets were to be purchased and maintained with fine monies. And further, by 1657, each householder was required by law to keep fire buckets in his home. To that end, all were taxed and city shoe makers set to the task of making some 250 buckets.
Many improvements came a short while thereafter with the establishment of the first volunteer Fire Company in New Amsterdam. Eight volunteers were chosen (this soon became fifty) and were established to form a “rattle watch”. These men, teasingly called “Prowlers”, patrolled the city from 9:00pm until sunrise and sounded the alarm on their rattle to bring forth citizens in the event of a fire. In the case of a fire, “...they directed neighbors and passerby into bucket brigades, and one line passing the filled buckets from the water source to the fire and the other passing the emptied buckets back to be refilled.”(3) Fire buckets were made large enough to hold approximately three gallons of water and were, at first, marked with simple identification; later, some came to be elaborately and beautifully decorated. These are highly prized today.
The beginning of the eighteenth century saw additional innovations, such as the mutual fire society (the banding together of people foresworn to aid each other in the event of a fire) and the more enduring fire insurance company. In 1711, less than a month after a serious fire, Boston was divided up into districts each under the care of new municipal officers to be called “fire wards”. These fire wards were to carry a staff of office and a badge and were to have authority over everyone at a fire scene. Standard equipment amongst them: a bed key for the dismantling of beds (a most precious possession), and a salvage bag (a large commodious bag into which valuable possessions could be quickly stuffed).
In 1721, Richard Newsham of London applied for the first patent for his new fire engine for quenching fires. “...this engine is said to be capable of pumping over 100 gallons a minute.”(4) Newsham’s engines were man-powered by hand and foot action of ten to twenty men and could play a stream of water upwards of fifty-five yards. The nations first volunteer engine company, Ben Franklin’s Union Fire Company, established in Philadelphia in 1736, and the first volunteer engine company in New Amsterdam, established in 1737, were marked by the arrival of these new fire engines. Soon, volunteer engine companies began to proliferate throughout America, and the century and a half following could well be known as the heyday of the volunteer firemen.
The fire companies had originally organized for the common goal - to fight fires - but gradually this activity and everything associated with it became a multi-faceted, long lasting, and politically influential social institution. The firehouse and firefighters became a source of pride to the communities. Songs were written, statues made, lithographs printed, all glorifying the firefighter. There were balls, dances, and picnics, and there were parades. Garlands of flowers bedecked fire engines and ladder trucks, while proud cadres of firemen in red shirts and black helmets, or parade hats and capes, marched to the cadence of a band. Night parades were ablaze with firelight. There were hand held torches and lanterns, there were helmet torches, and perhaps most beautiful of all - there were hand drawn fire engines with gumdrop-bright, red and blue glass engine lights illuminating their way. Memorabilia associated with parades are special treasures to the fire antiques collector.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, improvements came along. The industrial revolution now began to affect firefighting. Man-powered hand pumped ‘engines’ were no match for the tireless, steam-powered, horse drawn ‘bulljines’. The Civil War also played a role here, as it had taken the lives of many heroic firemen and with those men died much of the knowledge and practices of the old firehouse system. Eventually, the steamers came and were motorized. Large cities had paid departments. For all practical purposes, the end of the nineteenth century marked the end of the grand heyday of the “fire laddie.”
There is evidence galore recording activities of these latter day, nineteenth century firefighters. Some evidence is in the form of documents, much is in the form of artifacts. But whether objects of volunteer or paid companies, these artifacts of helmets, badges, uniforms, equipment, lamps, lanterns, torches, fine paintings and folk art, define the terms “firefighting memorabilia”.
A major problem in the early 1800s was rowdyism at fire scenes. To prevent persons who were not firemen from entering the fire lines, the legislature in New York ordered the Common Council in 1855 to design a badge to be displayed in a “plain, conspicuous manner for the breast.” While on duty, every firemen was required by law to wear his badge. The badge was made of “Prince Metal” and bore a number which was kept in the records of the fire department to identify the owner. This practice was successful and fire companies all over the United States followed suit. By 1860, this badge gave way to badges of different shapes, designs, and variations. Uniform badges have always been highly priced collectibles.
Soda acid fire extinguishers have been used in factories and schools and commercial buildings since the late 1800s. In its catalog, S.F. Hayward and Company describes its glass grenade fire extinguishers as “glass globes of about four inches in diameter, filled with a chemical which generates enormous volumes of extinguishing gas when brought into contact with fire.” Sizes ranged from half-pint to two quarts, the most common sizes being pints and quarts. The contents contained such simple chemicals such as saltwater, bicarbonate of soda, and muriate of ammonia. The glass grenade fire extinguisher came into existence around 1868 and lost its appeal around 1903.
During the 1600s, the effort to fight fires with gourds, tubs, and pails proved to be futile. The Executive Council of the City of New York felt that leather buckets would be sturdier and would hold more water. They called together seven shoemakers on August 1, 1658, and negotiated with them to make fire buckets with the capacity of three gallons each. By 1686, a law was passed that required “every person having two chimneys to his house provide one bucket.” Buckets occupied a place near the front door where they could easily be thrown into the street upon the cry of “Fire!” Because of early problems with buckets being lost or stolen, a watchmen usually collected the buckets after a fire and took them to a central location. Owners were required to have their names on their buckets. This led to the practice of decorating buckets for easy identification. The practice of having private homes provide buckets ultimately did not function very well, and eventually communities began to provide their engine house with buckets. Today, leather buckets are considered examples of folk art and are prized artifacts from Colonial America.
Jacobus Turck of New York City is credited with inventing the first fire cap around 1740. It was round with a high crown and narrow rim and was made of leather. Improvements on his design were made by Mathew DuBois, who sewed iron wire in to the edge of the brim to give the helmet shape and provide strength an provide resistance to heat, moisture, and warping. The most famous helmet maker of all was Henry Gratacap, who was noted for raised and stitched front pieces and the eagle shield holder, which was originally leather but later was changed to brass. The “eight comb” regulation fire hat (a hat design composed of eight segments) was originally adopted by the New York City Fire Department in the late 1800s. The use of helmet fronts for company identification possibly originated with the military and was adapted to fire service during the Revolutionary War. The first fronts used on fire caps were made of heavy sole leather, with the number of the fire company painted on the smooth side. Metal fronts were popular for parade use, and are in great demand today. During the 1930s, helmet fronts changed in size from eight inches to six inches with the removal of the eagle holder. Hand-painted fronts were still available for chiefs and are eagerly collected.
Firemen spared no expense when outfitting their engines. An example of this was brass or silverplate engine lamps found on engines of the 1800s and early 1900s. The main lamps were advertised in an early catalog as “ornamental in design and heavy in weight”. The kerosene lantern was a necessity in the days before the electric hand lamp. Lanterns were carried on fire apparatus for utilitarian purpose, although some were ornamental for decoration. In the days before street lights, torches were needed to light the way to night fires. The common torches were made of tin; the more expensive ones were made of brass. Presentation torches were very ornate, and were made of silver or pewter, and included figurative plaques, company names and numbers, or inscriptions. Today, these examples are the most valuable.
In the early days of fire fighting, an officer ran ahead of the pumper in order to determine the location of the fire and would shout orders to his men through his trumpet. The trumpet had other uses besides shouting orders at a fire. The mouthpiece could be removed and, it is rumored, replace with a topper - whereupon the trumpet became a vessel that could filled with a beverage. During a fight, it became a weapon. During a parade, the Chief would carry flowers in his trumpet. Trumpets were of two varieties: the work horn and the presentation horn. Working horns were used at actual fires; they were produced in brass, nickel, or silver-plated brass and painted tin. Presentation horns were usually sterling silver or heavily silver plated. The tassel was a decorative rather than functional addition to a trumpet.
Early firemen wore a distinctive bib-front shirt with a large company number sewn into the center, along with a pair of “gallowses”, or fancy suspenders and a leather belt to carry spanner wrenches. Colors of fire men’s shirts were not always red. According to the Woodhouse Catalog of 1888, “these shirts are available in any color.” A distinctive clothing feature was the unique parade uniform worn by each company. These uniforms ranged from everyday garb to “fatigue”, or traveling clothes; to elaborate parade dress. To this day, most fire department parade uniforms have elaborate buttons. These buttons include either the city seal, fire equipment, the company emblem, or the letters “F.D.” in their design. They are made with a gold or silver finish, and are flat or dome shaped. Other items to accompany uniforms included fancy metal belt buckles, oilcloth coats, capes, and shoulder patches.
1. Dennis Smith, Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America 300 Years of Courage (New York: The Dial Press ă 1978).
4. Arthur Ingram, A History of Firefighting and Equipment (Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, Inc., ă 1978).