Ornaments on Engines


Ornaments on fire engines required
specially skilled artisans.

Ornaments were focal points within the decoration on vehicles. They were moderately sized, unique and with meaning. Symbols in the design could describe the purpose or features of the vehicle. Ornaments could be carved wood panels, cast metal statues, oil paintings, hand lettered mottoes, gold leaf scrolls, etc. No ornamentor had all these skills. An engine builder hired a freelance ornamentor to provide what was needed on each particular engine. Large fire engine builders had enough work to keep a carver or fancy gilder on the job full time. The specialty of their fancy painter gave a distinct look to each manufacturer's engines. Modern fire engines still often have a custom ornament of some sort on the cab door.

The ornamentors that worked on early fire engines came from carriage and furniture paint shops. They had their skills and applied them to a fire engine, instead of their regular work. Small oil paintings and gold leaf scrolls were added to the stripes and lines painted on many chairs, tables, desks, coaches, carriages and sleighs in the early 1800s. These motifs and conventions were applied to fire apparatus and equipment. Carriages and furniture moved on to new styles with public fashions. Fire engines held on to the Federal Style for a century. Firefighters still embody the free and responsible American citizen, just as the Greek columns and Renaissance scroll-work did on public buildings. Firefighters held themselves to a high standard of duty. This was expressed through decorative designs and images from previous free societies.

Early American fire buckets and parade hats had an ornament on the front. Plain buckets and hats at least had professional lettering. Fancy hats and buckets had unlimited possibilities. When fire engines were first built in young America, they had stripes like fine carriages. Blank panels on the body had painted ornaments, similar to those found on fire buckets. The traditions and motifs from the buckets were added to the engines. The early gold scrolls on buckets continue appearing on hand engines throughout the 19th century. Steamers also used gold stripes and scrolls throughout the Victorian era. Gas powered fire engines still required specialist to ornament the hood panels. By this time engine manufacturers all had paint shops and offered gold leaf stripes and letters on their vehicles. Most ornaments became standardized by each manufacturer. Ornamentors of one company all used the same scrolls year after year.

plain or... ornamented ?

Parade hats were custom made for each new member. A fire company had a basic design to follow to keep the uniforms looking uniform. Each ornamentors portraits and scrolls would have there own style and skill. Here are similar hats by different fancy painters.

Transfer ornaments were used by some fire engine painters in the late 1800s. The Palm Company offered ornaments designed for vehicles. Their water transfer decals had real gold leaf that wouldn't tarnish over time. Most of the Decalcomania I have seen on fire engines came from Palm catalogs. Repainted engines often have transfer ornaments.




John Burgum was born in England and apprenticed in a clock factory as an ornamental painter. He arrived in Boston as a young man in 1826. On his first day in America, he noticed bold gold scrolls on an omnibus. He soon had a job with the company that decorated that coach. Within a few months he had been noticed by the Abbott & Downing Co. and he was working for them in Concord NH. Burgum rose to be head of the Abbott & Downing paint shop. He painted the polychrome scrolls and oil paintings on many of the stage coaches seen all over the American states and territories. He also ornamented hose wagons made by Abbott & Downing. In the 1860s Amoskeag steam fire engines were built at the Manchester Locomotive Works. John Burgum painted and gilded many Amoskeag steam fire engines.

This painting is by John Burgum, showing a train load of Wells Fargo stage coaches leaving the New Hampshire factory for the western territories. John's ornamental work was on all of the coaches and perhaps the locomotive.

The Concord coach body hung on leather straps from springs, giving a softer ride. The decoration was an imitation of the royal and private European coaches. These Concord coaches were for anyone to ride, and decked out with opulent ornaments similar to a Duke's conveyance.

"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
        Aristotle