Modern & Postmodern Era


Fire engine decoration since World War II.

After World War II fire engines changed in appearance. Until that time, fire engines were easily distinguished from other large vehicles by their gold leaf stripes and scrolls. The mechanics and tools of the vehicle were exposed and easy to recognized. In the 1950s fenders were gradually eliminated as the body became an all- encompassing box. The vehicles had an industrial-military look, with much less decoration and detailing. Fire departments were now government entities and the engines were government vehicles. Engine manufacturers were working for and selling to bureaucrats. Gold stripes were not seen to be cost effective.

American LaFrance series 700 and 800 engines were built from 1945 to 1959. They still had hand gilded scroll work, but far less than before. There were two small scrolls on the nose for the engine. These are the same scrolls that were in the corners of the hood panels and seat risers in the 1930s. There could also be an oval with scrolls on the doors, with a monogram of the local fire department.

As the years passed, the gold leaf stripes were replaced with chrome strips attached to the body. These chrome strips were slightly convex and reflected light very well. The simpler body shape gave fewer details to see. Soon the thin white lines were eliminated from the design. The lines on old vehicles had been a "gift to the person that takes a closer look" at the engine. The message on modern engines is "stay back 200 feet".

Fire engines have always been available in any color. Red became the predominant color for fire engines in the late 1800s when carmine glazing on vehicles was the height of fashion. 100 years later urban landscapes were full of red signs and buildings competing to be noticed by the driving public. In the 1970s engines in many other bright colors became popular. This was repeating the trend of the early 1800s when engines were all sorts of colors. The difference was that the old hand-tubs were plum, faun, pearl gray, dark green and russet as well a bright colors. Today's engines are all high keyed colors, usually with a contrasting bold horizontal stripe. The stripes and lettering are now made from reflective material that lights up from headlights. This has replaced the gold leaf stripes and scrolls on most engines.

As engines have become more boxy, so have the station houses. Gone are the towers for drying hose and watching for fires. Gone are architectural details or references to any building style before 1930. I don't see much reference to firefighting history. A cabinet or office may hold valued objects of earlier firefighters. Modern and Postmodern design is a break from tradition. The job is still a calling, but the tools have lost their symbolic power, their beauty.

Decoration on fire engines is no longer an integral part of engine building. Some manufacturers offer a minimal amount of stripes and perhaps a simple door shield. The entire engine can be wrapped in printed vinyl. There are a few artisans left that specialize in adding individualized painted and gilded decoration. Eagles and flags are still popular symbols with firefighters. Individual gilders still apply custom decoration to new apparatus, for fire companies that hold onto the tradition.

"When you're finished changing, you're finished."
        Benjamin Franklin