Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire Fighting: A Long and Proud History

When I see massive fire trucks barreling down the street with sirens blaring I think of fire fighting as a relatively modern pursuit. Who wouldn’t be touched by the bravery of male and female firefighters who braved the fires of 9/11 at the twin towers in New York City? I had a chance to ponder some of this as I researched small-town firefighting at the beginning of the 20th century.

In ancient times there are few records of fire fighting. However, the code of Hammurabi leaves a clue. An ancient law was written that says any volunteer firefighter who steals the property in a home where he is putting out the flames can be punished by execution if caught. There is always the possibility that thieves thought such an occupation might give them an opportunity to steal without being caught in all the mayhem, and therefore a necessity for such a law was born. 

]By Flominator (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Manual pump.
As ancient cities like Rome grew, they saw more of a necessity for someone to be regularly available to discover and fight fires. They set up a department of “vigiles” which means “watchmen” in Latin. At that time, firefighting mostly consisted of a bucket brigade. The volunteers brought buckets and used the nearest source of water to fill them, whether a river, pond, lake, or well.

Things didn’t change much until the seventeenth century when Londoners bought house insurance. The insurance companies began paying for their own crews to go and put out fires on insured properties so that they wouldn’t have to pay for the damages. Unfortunately, they only took care of their own buildings, not those around them that were uninsured, so the fire wasn’t stopped from spreading.

Here in the New World in the 17th century, in Boston, concerted efforts were made to prevent fires and a special engine was ordered from England. It contained a force pump that released water into a small hose and a tank that could be fed by a bucket brigade. In New Amsterdam (later New York), fire wardens were appointed and later men who would watch for fires and shake rattles to warn people. (Thus, they were called "rattlers.")

Benjamin Franklin created the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736. This would set a standard for volunteer fire companies.

During Colonial times, the larger cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York began taking more formal steps toward the organization of firefighting. They realized the need to gather proper tools and equipment for their volunteers. They needed ladders, buckets, and hooks. Bed keys were used to quickly take apart bed frames, often the most costly piece of furniture, so they could be salvaged. Bags set aside for salvage would be used to collect other goods.

Around 1800, the whole community started pitching in. Everyone owned a fire bucket, with their name on it, which was kept in the front hall. When church bells rang to indicate a fire, people would throw theirs out to the street to be available for the firefighters' use. They were marked with the owner's name and address so they could be collected and returned later, sometimes picked up at the church.

Volunteer firefighting organizations were a sort of gentlemen's club. In the 1800s, some of these companies in the larger cities formed rivalries. Sometimes fights broke out and more of that went on instead of fighting the flames! This type of competition was famously depicted in a scene from The Gangs of New York. 

In larger towns, primitive fire hydrants began to appear. They supplied water to the horse-drawn firetrucks which carried manual pumps. 

Eagle Ironworks, in Ohio, experienced a devastating fire in 1852. As a result, the first fully paid professional fire department was organized in Cincinnati in 1853. Immigrants were often anxious for a chance to enter the middle class through these secure city jobs. While firefighters remained a tightknit group, they were no longer a gentleman's club of sorts. 

By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

19th century fire wagon.
Equipment evolved along with the vocation. Eventually, steam-powered fire engines were used, still horse-drawn but more sophisticated in their workings. 
In 1878, the seamless cotton hose was brought into service. 

It wasn't until 1906 that motor apparatuses were first used in America. The days of the horse-drawn fire wagon were coming to a close while motorized vehicles were on the rise. 

Firefighting has continued to be an honorable profession, with their steadfast heroics on display for all to see during the tragedy of 9/11. While many cities and towns do have a professional, full-time fire department, seventy percent of communities in the United States still have departments consisting of volunteers. 

Kathleen Rouser is the multi-published author of the 2017 Bookvana Award winner, Rumors and Promises, her first novel about the people of fictional Stone Creek, Michigan, and its sequel, Secrets and Wishes. She is a longtime member in good standing of American Christian Fiction Writers. Kathleen wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She longs to create characters who resonate with readers and realize the need for a transforming Savior in their everyday lives. She lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of thirty-some years, and the sassy tail-less cat who found a home in their empty nest. Connect with Kathleen on her website at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter @KathleenRouser.

The Last Memory in The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection

Lighthouses have long been the symbol of salvation, warning sailors 
away from dangerous rocks and shallow waters.

Along the Great Lakes, America’s inland seas, lighthouses played a vital role in the growth of the nation. They shepherded settlers traveling by water to places that had no roads. These beacons of light required constant tending even in remote and often dangerous places. Brave men and women battled the elements and loneliness to keep the lights shining. Their sacrifice kept goods and immigrants moving. Seven romances set between 1883 and 1911 bring hope to these lonely keepers and love to weary hearts.

The Last Memory
 by Kathleen Rouser
1899—Mackinac Point Lighthouse
Natalie Brooks loses her past to amnesia, and Cal Waterson, the lighthouse keeper who rescues her, didn’t bargain on risking his heart—when her past might change everything.


  1. I love this blog because I learn so much about things that I just take for granted. Who isn't grateful for firefighters? We've needed them once or twice in our lives and thanked God they were available. Nowadays we take it for granted that help will arrive if we have a problem. Thanks for this post!

    1. Connie, I'm so glad you enjoyed this post! It is so easy to
      take what we are used to for granted. While I thankfully haven't
      had to call the fire department, I'm grateful for those who would
      risk their lives to help us and for the modern technology that
      makes firefighting more efficient!I learned a lot researching
      for this post.

  2. We have a fire museum here in Aurora, Illinois. One day my sister and I spent some time there. Fascinating. Here's a fun fact. Firefighters in the 1800s grew their beards as a form of fire protection. When a fire alarmed sounded they soaked their beards in water to protect their faces from the flames. Later a leather facemask was used and if I were a kid being rescued the sight might be quite frightening. The buckets were also leather. I adore museums and all the things I learn by visiting them. Kathy, this was a great post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Cindy, thank you for stopping by. It would be interesting to visit a fire
    museum. How fun! I didn't come across the fact about the beards
    or the masks, that I recall. I agree, I think a mask would be scary
    to a child! Thank you for sharing the fun facts you learned.
    I love museums too. So glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Kathleen, Thank you for sharing this informative historical post about fire-fighting. There has a been some major changes with firefighters and their gear.

    1. Isn't that the truth, Marilyn?! Can you imagine trying to put out a
      huge fire with just buckets of water? Thanks for stopping by. Glad
      you enjoyed the post!