American Style decoration

Fire service art was defined by
the first generations of artists.

Colonial fire engines were painted plain colors with no decoration. The citizen's buckets were decorated, but not the engines. Between the War of Independence and the War of 1812 many builders experimented with construction. Someone decided to have the local carriage painter dress up their creation. Stripes and flowers seem to be the first form of painting used on American fire engines. By 1815 every new engine being built was highly decorated. Gold leaf was expected on fire apparatus by this time. Soon the engines had silver plated castings and wood carvings. Surfaces were covered with painted ornaments, filigree lines and heavy gold scrolls. European decorative arts were the early models for American artisans. There was a sense of freedom and invention in the New World that invited artists to personalize the Old World forms. Invention and improvisation were valued and every paint job was expected to be unique in small ways.

New York and Philadelphia furniture makers used a lot of carved wood decoration in the early 1800s. Fire engines from these cities also had carved ornaments. The engines of the first few generations of American firefighters set the style for fire engines for over 150 years.

The engines needed a lot of human energy to move water. The decoration was full of energy, movement, intensity, and power. The engine had visual energy as it sat still. When it was pumping, it came alive.

Baltimore furniture had less carving and more painted decoration. The "Baltimore chair" became a popular design with gilded stripes and flat gold leaf scrolls, that were shaded to look like carvings. Often there was a small oil painting on the chair back.

This configuration of gold stripes and scrolls with an oil painting became a standard style on chairs. It was also used on many hand engines throughout the 19th century.

In the second half of the 19th century many young American painters traveled to Europe to study. The Academy of Art in Düsseldorf attracted a larger colony of American artists than Paris. The style taught at this school was brought back to America. The painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware was painted in Düsseldorf by Emanuel Leutze in 1851. Several American students posed as models for the men in the boat.

Lithographic color printing was another specialty taught at the Art Academy later in the century. Several alumni brought their skills to the Palm Brothers transfer decal company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Most fire engine manufacturers that used decals between 1870 and 1930 used Palm decals. Their designs used classical Renaissance scrolls with rich shading and real gold leaf.

The painting of George Washington demonstrates the Düsseldorf style with romantic staging, interesting detail and dramatic lighting. The Hudson River school of landscape painting started from several Düsseldorf alumni. The Academy taught that "the National Soul (Volkskarakter) is expressed through its countryside."

Landscapes became more popular in the second half of the century. They began to appear on fire engines at this time. Popular works of art were copied by local fancy painters onto hand tubs and steamers. The style of these trained artists was mimicked in cities and towns across America.

Fire service art was meant to be stylish and tasteful. It announced that voluntary public service such as firefighting, was a cultured and civilized endeavor. This aesthetic may sometimes appear gaudy or kitsch to people now. We have been taught to prefer minimal design and admire clean lines. They wanted more back then.

One influence on American fire engine decoration was the English painter William Hogarth. In 1753 he published Analysis of Beauty. In this book he coined the term "line of beauty" for the serpentine, meandering S curves he found in the designs of Raphael.

This aesthetic concept was taught in trade schools in England and discussed in painter's manuals and trade journals in America. A fancy painter with any curiosity would have heard of this Line of Beauty. The S curve could extend to fill any surface. It brought energy and life to the scrolls on American furniture and fire engines.

Hogarth used the "Line of Beauty" in this painting of a painter on Beer Street, 1759.

The humble engine house of 1800 evolved into Victorian splendor and continued progressing on to modernist cubes of concrete. Fire engine design changed slowly and kept old traditions alive. Fire house design tried every style and revival style that came down the pike. Fire houses were a celebration of changing fashions.