Decalcomania Ornaments

Transfer decals have been used on
fire apparatus since the 1870s.

The first decals used in America were on ceramics. They were simple black line engravings printed on paper and transfered during the glazing process. Color lithography printing in the mid 1800s led to many new products. Color printed transfer decals were first awkwardly applied with varnish. By 1870 water transfer decals had been perfected. Anyone could slide them onto a smooth surface. It became a mania and the transfer ornaments were called decalcomanie. The street slang in NYC for them was "cockamamie". Sheets of decorative decals were bought by the public and stuck on everything. The Victorian Era had a passion for combining symbols and ornaments from different historical styles. Decalcomania let the average person engage in a Victorian extravagance.

Charles Palm made transfer ornaments designed for horse drawn vehicles. He brought lithographers trained at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art to Cincinnati Ohio. They drew what they saw on local vehicles as well as what they had been designing in the old country. The decals used 22 karat gold leaf and full color printing.

The results were amazing, brilliant colors blending on a gold leaf ground. Now a painter that gilded the stripes on an engine could stick on some corner decalcomanie. The hand ornamentors were out of a job at many fire engine factories. Shaded gold lettering could be bought through the mail.

Above, leaves of gold are being applied to sheets of lithograph decals.
Below, skewing away the excess gold, which covers the floor.

Decalcomania was accepted as equal to hand painted ornament by the public. There was no stigma for having decals on your fire engine instead of original handmade work.

The Ahrens-Fox Company used gold leaf Palm Co. decals, made specially for them. These designs were not for sale in the Palm Brothers catalogs. The gold leaf lettering, numbers and stripes were hand gilded at the factory to order. Some other companies that used decals include Leverich, Nott, Pierce, Howe and Buffalo.

These aluminum decals had an amber glaze printed over them when new. They looked like gold leaf back then. The hand painted gold leaf stripes have not faded, but the decals are showing their secret.