Oil Paintings on Engines

Many fire engines displayed
public art by local artists.

Oil paintings on fire engines grew from ornamental painting already being done on buckets and parade hats. This older colonial equipment had lettering and small oil paintings when the local engines were just plain color. The tradition of having oil paintings on fire engines was well established by 1815, after the War of 1812. The firefighters requested the oil paintings and took good care of them. They were done on a removable board, and were left in the fire house when the engine was in use. Sometimes the builders hired an artist and sometimes the space was left in primer, to be finished by an artist chosen by the fire company members.

Landscape paintings on fire engines were rare. There were many allegorical scenes set in a landscape. The land itself became a subject for artists in the second half of the 1800s. People moved to cities and wanted paintings of the land they left. Landscapes had become symbolic images of America's uniqueness and potential. By then many fire engines were steam powered. There was no large surface for a panel painting on the steamer's body. Some steamers had small oil paintings on the driver's seat or on the rear coal box. Most remaining steamers were recycled during World War II and few original paintings from the steam era survive. In the 20th century the Seagrave Co. continued the tradition, offering custom oil paintings on their hoods.