Symbols on Fire Engines

Certain images appear repeatedly
on engines over the years.

Many of the symbols and decorations painted in early America were derived from ancient Greece and Rome. The Founders saw America as a rebirth, a renaissance, of these earlier civilizations with the 18th century addition of science and reason. In these ancient cultures an eagle bore a person's soul to heaven. The Great Seal of the United States was drawn up in the early days of the country. This eagle is formal and static in the tradition of Roman Empire eagles and European eagles of the 17th Century. English culture did not use the eagle as a symbol of their own land. To them the eagle symbolized the foreigners of European. American artists brought ancient Classical symbols, like the eagle, back to life.

The first generation of American artists did not draw the European eagle of heraldry for very long. Soon they were drawing a different bird. The American eagle evolved, artist by artist in towns along the coast, into a new version of the ancient archetype. This bird was in motion, often just taking off or landing. It was asymmetrical and active, looking around. Back then, this was a noticeably new depiction of an eagle.

This New World eagle represented a new type of person in Western culture, a person with new rights and freedoms, taking new actions. Firefighters were living symbols in each community, representing the responsibilities of liberty from tyranny. They knew it and felt it. They showed it each time they defended the neighbors from fire. The decoration they chose for their equipment expressed what it felt like to be playing a major roll in this American experiment.

Abigail Adams saw the eagle as America's Phoenix. Rising from the ashes has been a symbolic experience for many firefighters. America was the New Greece to many citizens and they felt a bond to Greek and Roman mythology. This was especially true of the colonists that went through the fire of the Revolutionary War. There were many Phoenix Fire Companies.

During his lifetime, George Washington was a famous fireman as well as a general and president. He gave gifts of hand engines to several cities. In this illustration he is inviting two young dandies to stop watching and help with the rescue at hand. Roman gods and famous firemen were favorite figures to find on fire engines. George Washington's image has occupied firehouses for all of American history.

Ben Franklin was not as active a firefighter as George Washington. Franklin added concepts and inventions to the fire service. His lightning rod saved many houses and lives. He did not take a patent on the invention, but rather gave the device freely to the world. The fire company he started in Philadelphia set a new standard by voting to respond to all fires in their ward. Other fire companies only responded to the fires of their investors and members.

"The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself."
        Benjamin Franklin

Fire and Water are themes for a lot of fire service decoration. In the colonies, fire wardens walked the streets at night watching for fire. They carried a tall staff with a stylized symbol for fire on top. This staff also made the warden easy to find in the commotion at a fire. Below are two cast iron torch finials that were mounted on a fire house.

Notice the gold leaf ring of fire around Lafayette's portrait, by Thomas Sully.

Ivy has been a symbol on fire helmets for over 150 years. As other symbols have come and gone, this symbol has remained strong with firefighters. The vine is the brotherhood and each leaf is an individual firefighter. It shows them as equal, unified and the new growth is fed by those that came before.

Pictured above are some Knights of Malta.

The Knights of Malta became a charitable, non-military organization during the 11th and 12th centuries, providing aid to the sick and poor and helping to set up numerous hospitals. They would later take up arms and join with the Knights of the Crusades in an effort to win back the Holy Land. This new breed of knight dressed in regal fashion to show his colors in a uniform manner. Large crimson-colored capes were worn over the suits of armor. Not only were the capes symbolic, but they also helped provide a defense against one of the newest weapons of war--fire. These humanitarian Knights and their distinct eight-pointed cross were adopted as symbols by European firefighters for centuries.

The term "Maltese cross" is often used for the Florian cross. This is what a majority of American fire departments use. It has the same, eight-point structure as the Maltese cross, but has convex outer edges. 

Florianus was born about 250 AD in the ancient Roman city of Aelium Cetium in present-day Austria. He joined the Roman army and advanced in the ranks, rising to Commander of the Imperial Army in the Roman Province of Noricum. In addition to his military duties, he was also responsible for organizing firefighting brigades. Florian organized and trained an elite group of soldiers whose sole duty was to fight fires. The Florians were far superior to the firefighters in Rome, who were slaves. Florianus also refused to worship the Roman Gods and was martyred. There are many images of St. Florian across Europe.

Many early fire companies and engines had Native American names. Tribes, individuals and ancient places have all had their names entered into firefighting history. This was back when these decisions were voted on at firehouse meetings. Americans wanted an identity that was not European. This was a New World with new symbols to add to Western Culture. I think the names and images express the firefighter's desire to brake with European tradition. The members of the Boston Tea Party wore costumes of the Mohawk Nation in admiration, not mockingly. They were saying that the Mohawks had a superior government to King George.

In 1749 Benjamin Franklin was involved in the Albany Plan to unify the colonies. Some of Franklin's suggestions were based on his knowledge of the Iroquois Union. Franklin, like many colonists, had heard of how the six tribes of the Iroquois governed themselves. Earlier, in 1744, Franklin had published a speech by Chief Canassatego, given before colonial representatives from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. The Iroquois governing system had been tested and improved over generations. In many ways the tribes and the colonies were similar. They each wanted to retain their unique customs and still unify into one larger culture.

"We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighbouring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another."
        Chief Canassatego of the Onondaga Nation

Columbia was the goddess of the new Continent that Columbus discovered. She appeared with the goddesses of the other Continents on maps, certificates, seals and flags in the 1700s. Early representations of Columbia show a Native American woman with a feathered headdress, an alligator or armadillo, and a weapon of some sort. A statue of Columbia stands on top of the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. She was portrayed later in the century with her eagle and usually a big shield. She lost her First People's facial features and feathers, as she morphed to become Lady Liberty by the mid 19th century.

Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War when the capitol dome was designed for Washington, D.C. The Southern States did not want the statue of Columbia to wear a Liberty Cap, symbolizing the New World as a freed slave. Mr. Davis pressured the sculptor, Thomas Crawford, to replace the Cap with an odd helmet. The sculpture was assembled atop the dome by a former slave. The figure of Columbia was turned to face the South through the Civil War... and that is symbolism in action.