Young city couple admiring an American LaFrance steam fire engine.

History & Fashion

Fire engines were greatly admired
by the American public...

Parades and musters displayed fire engines up close, showing impressive mechanics and beautiful ornamentation. City fires drew huge crowds to see the apparatus in action. In the early 1800's each volunteer hand engine company was independent and each engine looked unique. An engine could be identified from afar by its coloring and decoration.

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Archeologists in Egypt were uncovering symbols from the past that found their way onto early American objects.

    In the late 1700's and early 1800's archaeologists were making discoveries in the ancient world. The public was fascinated with the excavations going on in Rome, Pompeii, Greece and Egypt.
    The ornaments and styles being uncovered in Rome influenced the painted decoration on chairs used by president Washington. Thomas Jefferson designed with this same early classical language in the architecture of Monticello. These same symbols and motifs appeared on early fire engines. The ancient classical language was rewritten by American builders and crafts people. Lady Liberty and George Washington joined the gods on Olymmpus.

American Empire style chair with Roman elements.Montecello architecture by Thomas Jefferson. George Washington in a toga, with his boots on.Roman Urn on front corner of hand engine.Hand engine artwork with lots of symbolism.

"Your own property is concerned when your neighbor's house is on fire."

Silk banner to carry in a parade.Americus Firehouse as a Roman stone monument.

    Americans identified themselves with the free citizens of ancient Greece and Rome. They constructed their new buildings, furniture and vehicles with the symbols and designs of Greco-Roman culture. The humble colonial cape house was reconfigured to become a little Greek temple. The front door got moved to the gable end. Early fire engine houses were small out buildings that often had this appearance.

a small wood Greek temple to hold the high-tech mechanism.Weccacoe Company visitine another engine house.

    Each hand engine company was a neighborhood institution. Local symbols appeared on the engines, such as a landmark or celebrity or event connected with that place. The firemen debated and voted on an engine's name, color, motto, etc.
    People felt an emotional and spiritual connection to the engines. There were people that had been saved by a fire company. There was comradery among the firemen of a company and also connections with the citizens. These feelings grew with each heroic act or tragedy. The fire engines were witnesses to these charged events. Each engine held its stories which touched the neighbors deeply. The ornament displayed local symbols that conveyed universal subjects of life and death, fire and water, freedom and duty... large topics taken on by average citizens.

1882 fireman in Meadville the Citizens Hose Co. fire bucket with portrait in oils and gold oval frame. Taylor Hose Co. parade hat with oil portrait. Eagle Engine No 13 with carved cornecopias and lots of stripes. 1837 fire engine gold leaf scroll.

    Early 19th century fire engine decoration resembles the coach painting style of that day. Public coaches were the main mode of overland transport between towns. The coaches were painted in bold colors with eye catching decoration. The hand engine builders took that look and refined it.

Door scrolls on a Concord coachConcord stage coach in standard red over chrome yellow color scheme.Colored and gold scrolls on Concord coach panel. These are similar to scrolls surrounding European coats of arms.Cowing hand engine with bold scroll. Elaborate gold stripes and scrolls on an old hand tub. Original painted fountain on early hand engineHose company with their huge hose cart.Glowing cinders falling through steamer grate onto the road. The first steam fire engines in New Your City.

    Steam fire engines were one of the few large heavy vehicles that needed to go fast. The limits of new technology were often tested first by fire engine manufacturers.
    One job of the ornamenter was to make the engine look lighter. A steam fire engine without stripes looks more massive than the same engine veiled in gold stripes. This is especially true of the large wooden wheels. Every spoke has multiple stripes on the front and sides. Complimenting colors and reflective gold break the surface up. The large pieces are visually broken into smaller parts.

Amoskeag hand painted and gilded decoration on steam fire engine wheel.

Engraving of a Silsby steam fire engine showing a huge amount of painted decoration. 1838 Philadelphia style hand engine with carving and miles of stripes. Original bold gold stripes showing through darkened varnish on rocker arms of a hand engine.Gold leaf ornament with an art deco feel.At least a quarter of this hose carriage is covered in gold.1863 pin-striping Lines and dots on an American LaFrance ladder truck.Amoskeag hose carriage with gold ornaments on the spool. Close-up of Amoskeag hose carriage showing fine lines and dots on frame rail.Hand engine wheel decorated with stripes, lines and dots. Hose cart wheel decoration. Diamond pattern on American LaFrance gold stripe.

    Gold was used on nearly all fire engines built after 1810. Gold was as elemental as the fire and water that the engine was built to control. At a fire the gold leaf reflected the flames and "the engine seemed alive". In a parade the gold would flash in the sunlight as the engines went by. Gold also reflected the dark of the night. When designing with gold, one must imagine it as some times black and at other times brighter than white.

Gold number 5 on a Hunneman hand engine. Corner of an 1850 Rumsey hand tub. Carved and gilded scrolls next to asphaltum shaded flat gold scroll. Oil painted portraits by W. Hoffman on a hand engine.Foot board of a horse drawn ladder truck. Scroll on dark green hand engine.Jumbo gets noticed on Hartford street.

    The first decades of hand engine decoration set a standard that lasts to today. Bright colors, gold stripes and heavy Renaissance scrolls remained while popular fashion changed over the years.

Photo portrait of Duryee Zouave
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