Firefighters & Artists

Firemen were heroes in young America
and also patrons of the arts.

The early generations of American fire fighters were volunteers. They paid for their own uniforms and they paid for their own fire engines. They were the ones who decided what the uniforms would look like. They decided to have the gold leaf and elaborate stripes painted on their equipment. They saw their work as valuable, meaningful and even inspiring. They were living representations of the ideal American, pursuing their personal happiness while serving their community. There was no King to oversee their protection from the dangers of life. Self rule required self reliance and the early fire companies were symbols, showing how a free people could care for themselves.

The hat to the right was worn in parades by a volunteer firefighter in the early 1800's. Each fire company had an emblem or motto on their hats and engine. Sometimes, portrait artists were hired to do oil paintings on parade hats and engines. Thomas Sully, John Trumbull, John Archibald Woodside and David Rent Etter all painted portraits for fire companies.

Less than half the fire engines in America before 1850 were red. Red shirts were popular before red engines. The generation that defeated the Red Coats in the War of Independence chose to wear bright red shirts and capes as firefighters.

Lafayette Hose Co. parade hat with oil portrait. early fireman parade uniform.

Fire companies were a model to the local citizens of the new America. Many of the founders became interested in this Second Fight. They joined local fire companies and fought against fire as well as tyranny. The fire company was a metaphor and a model and an experiment in self reliance.

Paul Revere combined being a Boston fire warden with a career as a silver smith. In later generations other artisans were employed to create silver presentation trumpets, lanterns and statues affixed to parade vehicles. Revere's example as a citizen and also his style of ornament influenced the fire service for generations.

Paul Revere; fireman, artisan and  founding father.

Progress in 1800 was about improving one's virtue, the character habits and conviction to act courageously. This is what the firefighters represented to the citizens.

"Liberty is the parent of Virtue"
Liberty allows one to "act under the light of one's own reason".

The earnest intensity of the first few generations of Americans can still be seen in the uniforms and the decorated engines they manned. They were called to service by their personal desire for freedom with stability and safety. Firefighters and artists of that time felt very involved in an experiment, trying to live a new way. Few humans before them had experienced the personal freedoms that the Constitution protected. This was a New World and the firefighters ran their own fire companies. They paid their own bills and they put out everyones fires.

"In the absence of freedom there can be no virtue. Doing the bidding of another is obedience, not virtue."

Currier and Ives print of ferry boat fire.

Young Nathaniel Currier was a freelance artist and firefighter. His life changed when he documented a tragic ferry fire in New York harbor. He sold the illustration to a newspaper and also sold many more prints independently. He soon found success drawing scenes of other New York fires.

With James M. Ives he built a company, Currier and Ives, that produced color prints of American scenes. Their series of prints "the Life of a Fireman" decorated many fire house walls. Sometimes Currier included himself as a firefighter in the lithographs. Here he is majestically pulling a hose carriage out of the fire house.

Currier and Ives print of Nathaniel Currier as a fireman.Currier and Ives print of the 1872 Boston fire.Currier and Ives print of the Chicago fire.Currier and Ives print from series Life of a Fireman.Currier and Ives print from the series Life of a Fireman.
1st Minn. Hook & Ladder Co.

The American colonists spoke of the British government as "fire", strong and dangerous, a threat requiring vigilance to control. Tyranny was what most people lived under in the Old World. Ending tyranny was on the minds of the New World firefighters. Civics was passed down and discussed in fire houses for generations. Firefighters played a practical and symbolic role in the new Nation. Educated citizens needed Moral Sentiments to make good decisions governing themselves. Such sentiments could be developed in the fire service.

"Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently."
        Maya Angelou