Tools of Early Firefighting

Tools of Early Firefighting

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.

The cry rings out; “Fire!”  It’s the 1800's in Virginia. 

Townspeople leap out of bed into their clothes and grab their fire buckets as they race out the front door.  They line up in rows in the village square with their leather buckets in hand ready to go.

“Get the hose cart,” someone yells.  The hand-pulled cart shows up a few minutes later.

Fire buckets were the tools of the firefighting trade.  A bucket usually displayed the homeowner’s name in paint.  How many buckets in a household depended on the fire risk.  One bucket for each fireplace was common.  

Flames shoot up from the wooden building in the town square into the night like a giant candle.  Barrels of gun powder and whiskey explode and burst into flames behind the villagers.  It will take the whole town, including children, to stop this blaze. 

Two lines stretch from the town’s water source.  In one line men fill the water buckets and pass them back toward the fire.  From the other line women and children send the empty ones back to be filled. 

Fire buckets were the tools of the firefighting trade.  A bucket usually displayed the homeowner’s name in paint.  How many buckets in a household depended on the fire risk.  One bucket for each fireplace was common.  After a blaze was extinguished, fire buckets typically lay heaped in piles waiting to be reclaimed by their owners.  To tell one from another, people painted their names, initials, emblems and designs on them.

The firefighting process was excruciatingly slow and whole cities burned down.  Most fires happened at night and in some towns men wandered the streets at night watching for fires.  They carried big wooden rattles that made an alarming sound when twirled.      

And then there was the stove-pipe firemen’s hat.  These beauties often painted and decorated with emblems and medallions speak of a time in history when firefighters were folk heroes in the local parade and neighborhood.

George Washington, Paul Revere and Thomas Jefferson were all volunteer firemen.  It was the patriotic thing to do in booming America.

When the Civil War broke out in the 1860s men went off to war and horses took their place on the line.  Things remained that way until the 1930s when gasoline powered vehicles replaced horses.

The early hand-pump engines needed to be manually pumped to create water flow.  The energy needed to keep them going wore firemen out quickly and slowed the process down even more.  The new steam fire engines used coal and steam to create the pumping motion.  So men could save their strength for the task at hand.

A working, late-19th century, hand-drawn, hand-pump engine named the “Red Jacket” painted with the Massachusetts state seal went up for sale at Skinner Auctioneers in Boston, Mass., on March 6.  The pumper was brass, nickel-plated, and polychrome-painted metal. 

It was also mounted with a small brass-framed placard inscribed “Facsimile of the Engine Owned by the Red Jacket Veteran Fireman’s Association/Cambridge, Mass.” 

The “Red Jacket” sold for $53,325.  The original engine is in the collection of the Westborough, Mass., Fire Department.

Chromolithograph Print; Engine of the “Red Jacket” Veteran Firemen’s Association; Cambridge, Mass., Brooks Bank Note Company Lithographers; circa 1895; sheet size 19 7/8 inches by 23 7/8 inches;  $1,422.      

Stovepipe Parade Hat; painted, molded, cardboard; polychrome-painted and gilded spread wing eagle; flanked by the word America; circa 1825; 6 ¼ inches diameter;  $4,148.  

Leather Fire Buckets; 2; belonging to Robert Todd; probably Charlestown, Mass., early-19th century; both depict flaming spreading eagle grasping banner inscribed “Franklin Fire Society,” 12 ¼ inches high;  $4,444.  

Leather Fire Bucket; belonging to David Stoddard Greenough Jr., (member of the Harvard College class of 1805); painted and decorated; made by John Fenno; Boston, 1812; 12 ¾ inches high;  $10,073.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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