FireArt History

The history of decorating fire apparatus.

Fire engines in colonial America were simple pumps on wheels, imported from England. Over a 60 year period they changed very little. They were painted a solid color with no stripes or lettering. Gold leaf and painted decoration had never been seen on fire engines. After the War of Independence, fire engines began to be made in America. Within a few decades they had many mechanical improvements. They also became heavily gilded and ornamented. The entire concept of fire fighting changed with the transition from a Royal colony to a country of free citizens. Defending against fire was the responsibility of the community and the volunteers took on the task with a flourish.

To the right is the first fire engine built in New York City. It was named "Old Brassback" for its polished brass corner braces. The basic design was copied from England. The brass work was a bit fancier than the British machines. This was just the beginning of Americans putting their individual ideas into building fire engines. Each builder felt free to improve upon the existing engines. Within a few years the wheels had spokes and the paint did more than just make the engine waterproof.

As I began restoring fire engine decoration I was surprised at the amount of stripes on every engine. I had decorated 19th century horse drawn coaches, carriages, wagons, business vehicles, and other antiques. They all originally had stripes and lines painted on them.

When researching an 1850s army wagon I found a letter from the Studebaker Co. written to the U.S. Government. It stated that Studebaker refused to sell their wagons without stripes to anyone, even the army. If the Government wanted Studebaker wagons, they would arrive with stripes. Stripes were not an option. The vehicles weren't complete until they had stripes. I had not experienced this attitude when painting modern vehicles. What has changed about people since then?

I've asked myself and others for years, why do fire engines have such opulent decoration? Who decided this was a good look for a pump on wheels? Who did all this painting? How and where did they learn to paint like that? Who paid for all that labor... and all that gold? Why was gold on almost every engine I researched? What's with those huge gold scrolls on fire engines? How were the scrolls painted to look so three dimensional? Why did they continue using the same style of scrolls for over 200 years? Were any other vehicles decorated to this extent?

These images look foreign to modern eyes. 21st century firefighters don't want flowers or Greek goddesses painted on their engines. Fine artists of today are not interested in painting a scene or portrait on a fire engine. What were those oil paintings doing there on fire apparatus? Many images are hard to interpret, what is going on in the paintings? What do they have to do with putting out a fire? Did the firefighters want all that artwork on their equipment?

The question most asked of me by other people is "why are fire engines red?" I found many engines that were not red. When did red become the predominate color, and why?

Times have changed. We are very different from our ancestors. I hope the following pages can help you appreciate the old fire engines you see in museums and parades. They speak of ideals and principles... and the craftsmanship is exceptional.

"I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine."
        Kurt Vonnegut