Young America

The first years of American firefighting.

In 1666 the city of London had a huge uncontrolled fire. This initiated the first serious fire fighting service in England and their colonies. Fire fighting at that time consisted of throwing water from buckets or squirting water from hand-held syringes. A great deal of effort was spent on saving the neighbor's house and pulling down structures close to the fire to keep it from spreading. Colonial structures were mostly made of wood. The object of the fire service was to save the town, not the burning building.

The first firefighters in colonial America were fire wardens. They walked the streets at night looking for fires. When a fire was spotted, they would use a rattle or gong to wake up the citizens. It was everyone's responsibility to put out the fire.

Wardens carried a staff as a symbol of their authority, similar to a royal officer. It also helped them direct the fire fighters and stand out in a chaotic crowd. The warden's staff was usually topped with a representation of fire. The one shown on the left was a presentation item given to a retiring warden. This was the start of the tradition of presentation items given to members. Later trophies would include silver speaking trumpets, gold badges, inscribed helmet shields, commemorative axes and more. A citizen's service to firefighting has been honored continually through the history of America.

Colonial fire fighting tools were simple and unadorned. They were copied from imported British equipment. The cloth bag was for quickly gathering up household objects before the fire spread to the entire building. The owner's name was on the bag, and the bags were numbered. In most towns a property owner was required to have two buckets for the bucket brigade. These were also numbered and labeled with the owner's name. The buckets were kept by the front door and tossed into the street when the fire alarm sounded. Children would gather up the buckets and run to the fire scene. Later the buckets would be returned to the owner.

The Aristocracy stayed in England on their precious land, putting out their private fires. The colonists were already learning how to survive without an overseer's help.

As time passed the buckets by the front door became a fixture in the home. They were often hung on special hooks or placed on a prominent shelf. They were seen every day by the owner and by guests. They became home decor and were personalized. The buckets were painted to harmonize with the wall coloring and other features by the entrance. A simple painted owner's name was replaced with fancier lettering. As home interiors became more decorated, the buckets became an element of the interior design.

Most of the fire engines in the American colonies were imported from England. The Monarchy ran the fire brigades in London and a Mr. Newsham built most of their engines. His design of 1721 changed very little in the next 60 years. A bucket brigade poured water into the wooden tub and a piston pump shot water out a long nozzle on the top. Hose had not been invented yet. The engine needed to be brought right up close to the fire. The front axle did not pivot, so to turn a corner the front end needed to be lifted up and moved by hand. The wheels were solid wood. It was a small, solid, dependable machine and improvement didn't seem necessary to the King and his Lords. In England the big land owners owned the fire engines.

The Stamp Act of 1763 ended the importing of British fire engines to the colonies. Local wagon shops and pump builders made variations on Mr. Newsham's design. Over the next few decades these independent builders tried new improvements, and learned from each other. Firemen and builders traveled to other towns to see what those towns had for equipment. Boston, New York, and Philadelphia each developed separate engine body styles.

The American-made fire engine was a public symbol of American Independence thriving. The trades and public services were working better with no help from the King. Fire Companies were more organized than before the War. The new American fire engines were the best in the world. Cities of a few thousand people had advanced technology that looked like a Royal vehicle.

This age of invention was not limited just to mechanics. Art of this period was also energized by the the new found freedom of Americans. Within one generation fire engines went from no decoration at all, to brightly colored surfaces covered with gold leaf and carved decorations. Europeans copied this American aesthetic, but they did not capture the inventiveness and emotion displayed by these Young Americans.

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear."
        Mark Twain