Lettering on Fire Engines

Fire engines had names and mottoes
to proclaim their principles.

When Ben Franklin was a young printer, most things in the colonies were printed in a single typeface, Caslon. The first printing of the Declaration of Independence and the proclamation on the Liberty Bell were set in Caslon. The national debate over independence from England led to hundreds of pamphlets to read. Literacy was seen as a necessary skill of a self-governed people. By 1800 America had the highest literacy rate in the world. Colonial fire engines had no lettering or stripes. Early American fire companies wanted names and mottoes, sometimes in Latin, on their apparatus. The words on fire engines are ideas to remember, to repeat and to follow. They are charged words from our elders and our founders.

In 1733 the only typeface used by Benjamin Franklin was Caslon. It came in many sizes and fonts of regular, bold and italic. By 1818 the Farmer's Almanac was using several type styles, especially bold fonts with contrasting hair line strokes.

Calligraphy was a valued skill from colonial times. Clerks and fancy painters learned to use the feather quill and then later the steel nib to create a wide variety of important documents for fire companies.

For over 60 years the Caslon typeface was used for most printing in the New World. It was replaced with a new favorite designed by Giambattista Bodoni in the 1790s. Caslon came from hand lettering with a quill pen. Bodoni letters looked machine-made with interchangeable parts. The curved strokes of the C, G, O and Q were identical. All thin strokes and serifs were hair-thin lines. Wide strokes were very wide and straight. Industrial Age mechanical forms were made pleasing through good proportions and exact type casting. Hand painted lettering from the same basic letter family had appeared on fire buckets before 1790. The precise mechanical look of the letters worked well on the technical machinery being built at that time.

Fancy painters could learn their trade by apprenticing or through illustrated manuals. In the early 1800s sign painters were inventing new letter forms that were then copied by type manufacturers. The painters were leading the way in new letter styles. Colored reveals or "shades" were often added to important words on a sign. This was also very popular for an engine name or town name on a fire engine.

The Egyptian letter style first showed up as a typeface in 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte had returned from Egypt in 1809 and Egypt was in the news. French gunners had shot the nose off the Sphinx. The letters had block serifs, like blocks of stone. Curved strokes often became blocks with angled cuts. This was another letter style that went well with the Industrial Era. It looked mathematical and geometric. In gold leaf it stood out from great distances. It also took shaded effects well, and they became more popular as the 19th century progressed. This letter style was also called Mechanistic. Ahrens-Fox hood lettering was usually in Egyptian with a green shade in the 1920s and 1930s, still in style 100 years later.

The letter style above was popular on fire apparatus in the latter half of the 1800s. It is a refined Egyptian letter with lighter serifs that are bracketed to the wide strokes. American LaFrance called it Railroad Block, as it was often used on railway cars. Type designers called it Clarendon. It was the first copyrighted typeface.