Steam engines were decorated in factory paint shops. Each factory's work could be identified by their recognizable ornament style as well as their mechanics. City's could buy engines from one manufacturer over many years and they would all match.
The Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. shown above built steam locomotives in Manchester VT. It was a natural fit to also build steam fire engines. At left is the sign that hung in front of their Boston sales office.
Varnish with red lead was the most water-proof paint available for vehicles in the 1800s. Locomotives and fire engines often had red wheels of this paint, brightened by adding vermilion to the top coats. The wheels looked sporty and the red wore well.
When locomotives first left the factory, they were painted colors, striped and gilded. The heavy gold scrolls, bold geometric line decoration and shaded lettering was similar to fire engines. Locomotives had less delicate thin line work than fire engines. That kind of detail was saved for the interior of passenger cars.
The invention of lithography led to the first decals, which were used on ceramics. By mid 19th century a coach painter could buy decals for a paint job from a sample book and have them mailed to him.
Charles Palm sold beautiful designs for use on vehicles. Real gold was used as a base, with bright colors printed on top.