Published: June 4, 2007
Fire! Fire! Fire! What pulse does not quicken at the sound of the alarm? Heads turn and progress halts as firefighters race to a blaze. Whether it is the allure of danger and drama or the heroes who fight it, the attraction is irresistible.
Now comes the exhibition “Folk Art on Fire,” on view at the Fenimore Art Museum through December, that explores the folk art interpretations of colonial firefighters and firefighting in America. It, too, is a head turner.
Fire and firefighting bespeak bravery and heroics, brotherhood and sacrifice, as well as high competition, and the celebration of these elements plays out in virtually every object on view in the exhibition.
The 70 objects encompassing “Folk Art on Fire” include a representation of the tools of firefighting, articles commissioned by fire companies and, perhaps the most interesting, the implements and parade regalia that were oftentimes the work of the firefighters themselves. The material is drawn from several collections, including that of the Fenimore and from the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Penn. Items from the Robert and Katherine Booth collection, many of which were featured in the loan exhibit at the 2004 Philadelphia Antiques Show, are also on view.
Firefighting in colonial America was a volunteer effort, a tradition that widely continues today. (According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, of the 1.5 million firefighters in the United States, 85 percent are volunteers.)
Membership cuts across all social lines and has included such lights as Presidents George Washington, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore, and hoards of other political luminaries. Boss Tweed got his start with a fire company in New York City, and by 1865, New York had more than 100 volunteer fire companies.
Fire was a constant peril in the colonies where thatched roofs, wooden chimneys and close quarters prevailed. One year after the founding of Jamestown in 1607, fire destroyed all the houses and most of the provisions in the settlement. Three years after the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, fire destroyed seven dwellings and nearly extinguished that settlement. Boston, settled in 1630, enacted its first fire prevention measure the next year when the city banned thatched roofs and wooden chimneys. A fire in 1653 destroyed one-third of the town.
Early firefighting was pretty straightforward. At the alarm, all able-bodied townsmen would drop what they were doing, take up their fire buckets and salvage bags and run to the fire to help extinguish the blaze by passing the buckets hand to hand from the source of water to the fire. The method was as efficient as it could be at the time, but losses were high. The bags were used to salvage the householders’ effects in the wake of the fire.
Benjamin Franklin described the process in a 1733 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette , “Soon after it [a fire] is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing fire.” Three years later, Franklin organized the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, the first volunteer company.
In New York City, firefighting took on an organized form in 1648 when the colony began to levy fines for dirty chimneys. Those funds were used to buy and maintain buckets, hooks and ladders. New York also created fire watches and required citizens to serve as wardens, patrolling the streets from dark to dawn looking for fire. They were known as “Rattlers.” Other cities were quick to follow suit. In 1678, Boston organized a fire company whose members were paid.
When “pumpers” first appeared in the colonies (Joseph Jynks of Saugus, Mass., devised a rough pumping device in 1654; others were imported to the colonies from England) fire companies were charged with carrying the contraption to the fire and operating it, using water supplied by bucket brigades.
Householders and merchants were required to own at least two leather fire buckets; many maintained entire sets. Buckets were marked with their owners’ name or house number and often decorated colorfully with personal emblems of patriotism, pride, camaraderie, loyalty and service. Buckets, bags and hooks dominated firefighting until the early Nineteenth Century when first leather hoses and then rubber ones replaced fire buckets.
Classical imagery and Latin inscriptions were popular embellishments on fire buckets and other firefighting equipment. Among the buckets on view, the earliest, dated 1792, bears the Latin inscription “Nil Desperandum Franklino Duce” (Don’t despair, Franklin leads) and is marked as the property of Nathan Webb. A 1794 example proclaims its owner, D.R. Pingry, as a member of the Ex-Flammis Rescue Company, No. 2. Yet another, a bucket that belonged to S.H. Sheldon of the Adroit Fire Club, established in 1806 in Salem, Mass., was decorated with the image of a burning house.
Fire companies became the norm in the Eighteenth Century and their members were viewed as community heroes, esteemed for their bravery, manliness and strength. They were additionally a fraternal resource for their members, who vied with other companies for the honor of being the first, the fastest and the bravest. Firefighters were highly respected figures in any community. Although largely a male domain, one early female volunteer was Molly Williams, an African American slave who ran (in calico and apron) with a New York company as early as 1818.
Nineteenth Century fire houses quickly became social centers for firefighters. Although they were prohibited from bunking in at the firehouse to discourage drinking and gambling, firefighters typically spent much of their time there. Fines levied for same were an easy means of raising funds. Some houses had ornate mahogany meeting and recreation rooms and some even had card tables and pool tables.
Musters, parades and other social occasions called for fancier clothing than the standard turnout gear. Parade hats, capes, banners and badges appeared; most were decorated with images of bravery, heroic figures and icons venerating the young republic. Symbolic emblems, such as the eagle and the figure of Liberty, and portraits of such icons as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, William Penn and Zachary Taylor came into use. An array of Nineteenth Century painted felt parade hats bear their likenesses.
One memorializes hero Patrick Lyon, the Philadelphia blacksmith who was accused of a 1798 bank robbery and imprisoned falsely. He later sued his accusers. The portrait he commissioned, “Pat Lyon at the Forge,” from John Neagle was adopted by the Mechanic Fire Company to honor the artisan who made the first hand-drawn and hand-pumped engine and who rose from the anvil to a position in society.
Parade capes derived from the early utilitarian examples worn to protect firefighters from cinders, water and debris, provided great scope for artistic expression. Made initially of oil cloth, they evolved into canvas that was covered with three layers of paint, typically in fire company colors. A mid-Eighteenth Century Philadelphia oil cloth example on view from the Hibernia Engine Company is decorated with an American eagle with a harp, an olive branch and arrows.
A parade torch on view used by the Phinney Hose Company in Cooperstown is an example of ceremonial torches whose utilitarian counterparts were made to light the way to fires, a task usually assigned to boys too young to join the fire service.
Other parade objects on view include a speaker’s trumpet awarded in 1882 to the Mechanics Hook and Ladder Company as first prize in a hook and ladder contest.
Badges, whose purpose at first glance would have been purely ceremonial, were required at fire scenes to prevent persons other than firefighters from entering.
When pumpers came into common use, they, too, were decorated, designed with slots for large, removable side panels that artists then elaborately embellished. The panels were typically removed while the pumpers were in use at working fires.
The Weccacoe Fire Company’s circa 1857 engine’s side panel was adorned with a classical image of an unclothed woman, a titillating representation in an era of disapproval. Another engine panel in the exhibition is decorated with the figure of Liberty and a child, representing Knowledge; another depicts a scene from the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde.
A side panel from the Assistance Fire Company engine was painted with leaping stags emphasizing its speed and efficiency, while another depicts nautical designs, referring to the power of water in combating fire.
The circa 1825 No. 3 engine from the Neptune Fire Company on view is a New York-style sidestroke pumper. Its side panels are decorated with the 1878 image of cabinetmaker Edward Edwards, an early foreman of the Cooperstown fire brigade who was murdered in an 1873 burglary in his own home.
A model of a Philadelphia-style end-stroke pumper is decorated with classical imagery, an urn of flames, sailboats and an eagle.
An 1842 painting by William Effe, “Foreman with Pumper,” memorializes the foreman of New York’s Bunker Hill Engine Co., No. 32. The figure is pictured holding a speaking trumpet, a hat with a shield sits on the engine and the engine itself is decorated with an eagle, a Native American and a sailor.
Another painting, a circa 1850 portrait of Charles C. Henry, a Charlestown, Mass., hoseman for the Howard No. 7 Volunteer Fire Company and restaurateur, is attributed to Sturtevant J. Hamblin. Henry made a large donation to the fire company and was ultimately asked to sit for a portrait, which was presented in 1851 at the fireman’s ball and prominently displayed in Mechanics Hall in Boston.
The firefighter was also memorialized in weathervanes with known examples including horse-drawn pumpers. One unusual example on view in the exhibition is attributed to J.W. Fiske. It depicts a firefighter in a coat, cape and helmet with a shield and pulling a hose cart.
The Fenimore Art Museum is part of the New York State Historical Association, which also includes The Farmers’ Museum, both in Cooperstown. The Fenimore Art Museum is on 5798 State Highway 80, Lake Road. For information, www.fenimoreartmuseum.org or 607-547-1472.
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