Hand Engines


Restoring the gold leaf decoration
on antique hand engines.

These simple machines were decorated like fine furniture. Often there were oil paintings on the sides. The wheels and ironwork were pin-striped on every surface. A wide variety of complex color combinations and decorative motifs were used in this era. The craftsmanship is often incredible.

street scene in foront of city hall in NYC with hand engines passing.

In colonial America, fires were fought by throwing water from buckets directly on the fire. The invention of the piston pump with a condenser chamber made it possible to get more water quickly onto the fire. "Hand tubs" consisted of a basin to hold water and a pump to throw the water. The pumps were powered by volunteers rocking long handles up and down, on both sides of the machine. If a water source was close by, a siphon hose could be used to draw water. If no source was close, a bucket brigade was formed to refill the tub as the pistons emptied it.

Americus Engine Co. in New York City with two hand tubs

Hand engines could be any color. In old black and white photos we usually imagine that the vehicle is red, but this did not become the norm for many years. Each color of paint was priced by the cost of the pigment needed. Dark carmine red was a very expensive color. It became a point of pride to paint engines carmine.

My great-great grandfather was 19 years old in 1838, when this engine came to his home town of Waldoborough Maine. It was built between 1826 and 1828 in Vermont by John Cooper. A traveling salesman brought the used apparatus to Waldoborough. It was common for large cities to sell their old apparatus to smaller towns.

Mr. Cooper had a patent on his "coffee grinder" style pump, operated by side cranks. Most hand engines were piston pumpers and used a lever action for power. The Cooper pump was dependable but low on gallons per minute.