Gold Scroll Work

American fire apparatus have worn
gold scrolls since the beginning.

Scrolls were being painted and carved on fire engines in the first years of the 1800s. As fashions changed over the years, these scrolls continued to be seen on nearly all fire engines into the late 20th century. Gold scrolls were a symbol of the fire service, with each firefighter as a leaf and every fire company a branch. The roots lead back to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton, who were also firefighters. The scroll forms being painted lead back to Roman meandering scrolls being uncovered at the time in Pompeii. Scrolls that were reborn by Raphael and Udine in the Renaissance.

Ormaloo furniture was a major part of the Rococo Style, popular with aristocrats in Britain and Europe in colonial times. It consisted of a natural finished wood body with gilded bronze ornaments attached. American furniture makers, especially in Baltimore, made items in response to Rococo imports. The American furniture often used cheaper wood and wood-grained it to look like rosewood. Instead of applying bronze ornaments, flat gilded scrolls were over-painted with transparent asphaltum glazes. This made the ornaments appear three dimensional.

The American scrolls were not Rococo, not made out of many C shaped sections stuck together. The New World scrolls used Roman and Renaissance meandering forms. They followed S curves and one scroll could continue on growing to fill an area. This symbolism of growth and connection appealed to the first generation of artists and firefighters in America. They saw themselves as being the first leaves and branches on something of great value, something golden. Liberty from tyranny was a new way of living, and the fire service was vital to building the new country.

Rococo scrolls are rarely seen on American vehicles, furniture or fire apparatus. In the Victorian era, after the Civil War, Rococo was somewhat revived. Early Americans saw themselves in a Second Renaissance and used the symbols of the earlier era.

The Greek, Roman and Renaissance scrolls are based on the leaves of the acanthus plant. Fancy painters learned their trade from apprenticeship and from manuals. Drawing the acanthus leaf shows up in many of these little books. Inventiveness was much admired in early America and this scroll work was a good place to invent. Classic acanthus leaf forms remained in government architecture. Scroll work on vehicles and fire engines took many shapes as each artist developed their own renditions of the theme.

Scrolls of many kinds were painted on signs, vehicles and even on farm machinery. On sleighs, omnibuses, stage coaches, trains, ships and fire engines a bold form of scrolls was used. This style could be noticed from a distance and then provided more interesting features upon closer viewing. It would draw a person toward the vehicle for a better look.

Scroll work was seen everywhere in the 1800s. It seemed to fit the mood of the new country; bold, active, expanding, inventive, surprising...

Gold scrolls on fire engines sometimes have leaves that can also look like flames. Early hand engines had no hose. The apparatus had to be pulled up close to the fire to reach the flames. As the men took turns pumping, they could see the flames reflected in the gilded leaves.

The asphaltum shading could be realistic or quite abstract. The surface next to the scroll was often glazed to give the appearance that the scroll was casting a shadow on the engine.

The American LaFrance Company used hand gilded scrolls right into the 1950s. The leaf forms were built up from calligraphic brush strokes. Leaves could be added in many ways to fill any shaped space. All American LaFrance engines looked similar, using one formula for constructing the scrolls. On closer inspection the individuality of each painter shows through in the details.