Volunteer Firemen


the Olde Fire Laddies and
their fire apparatus.

Ancient Rome had the hand powered fire engine, with a condenser chamber, 2000 years ago. Knowledge of pumps with condenser chambers was lost after the fall of Rome. In the mid 1500s, the pump mechanism was re-invented in Germany, and efficient fire engines could once again be built. The American colonies only had bucket brigades, until fire engines were imported from England in the early 1700s. Later that century Americans started building their own engines, and many inventive improvements were made. By the 1800s, Europeans were copying the American machines.

Early hand engines were marvels of science and mechanics. The public would gather to watch them work. Hand engines were humanist inventions to control the destructive force of fire. Moving the element water to defeat the element fire.


"With this machine we challenge the Gods."

Educated and informed citizens were needed in early American communities to make self rule work. Fire companies were experiments in democracy and examples of civic responsibility, even in colonial times. Early firefighters bought their own equipment. The fire engine was theirs. They personally took on the responsibilities of fire protection for their neighborhood. The pride in their work inspired them to dress in decorated uniforms and buy equipment much fancier that the colonial engines imported from England.

Volunteering was done by men committed to the success of the American experiment. The fire house was a place to learn civics and debate issues. Self-improvement has always been part of the American character.

Two old time firemen.

Early firefighters wanted their equipment to make a statement. This wasn't the King's engine, or the Colonial Governor's engine. These men took the responsibility of protecting the town away from the King... and they tricked out their engine as if it were a Royal coach. They took the aristocrat's powers, responsibilities and trappings for their own.

Fire companies were made up of men from the sorrounding neighborhood. In a large city one fire company could have dock workers and another could be made of merchants, depending on where each fire house was located. In a smaller town the single fire company could include anyone in town from the mayor to a laborer. The men were equal within the company. It was a leveling activity among neighbors. Each member got one vote on topics from choosing a foreman to choosing the color of the engine. Early firemen voted a lot about everything. What name will the new engine have? Who will build the engine? Who will decorate it, plain or fancy? Will there be an oil painting on the engine, of what, by which painter? What colors, how much gold leaf, any carvings, a Company motto? etc.

"The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men."
        Henry David Thoreau

America was built with strong institutions that exemplified ideals and principles protected by the Constitution. Civic knowledge was passed down and debated in the firehouse. Each fire company became a voice in town issues. They had political power and they did not want to be part of the government. An individual could gain social standing and life skills in a fire company.

When firefighters acted from principles, they prospered. When they acted from their own interests, the company had problems. The mottos and engine names were reminders to the men of their principles. The decoration told the men that their work was valued, precious in fact. Many portraits of firefighters were on the sides of engines or hung on fire house walls.

"Never Doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
        Margaret Mead

"A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom."
        Bob Dylan

"My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death."
        Mark Twain

Why do firefighters stand in front of their engine to be photographed? I want to see the details of the apparatus...