Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Adams: what do they have in common? Yes, protecting home and hearth from the Redcoats and, as it happens, the red flames. The invigorating mixture of new cities and revolutionary fervor intoxicated young Americans, and joining a fire company was considered a prestigious social achievement. Admittance was coveted, spaces were limited, and members had to pitch in from their own pockets. But being a member meant recognition for fulfilling an important patriotic duty and, like today, the waiting list was long.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1735. Urging citizens to become more fire-conscious, he warned that they might otherwise be forced to “leap out of [their] windows […] to avoid being oven-roasted.” In 1736 with 29 prominent Philadelphia citizens, he formed the Union Fire Company, America’s first all-volunteer fire company. Each member agreed to provide leather buckets and linen bags. Their responsibilities went beyond mere fire extinction: they salvaged what property they could by stuffing it into these bags. The volunteers carried another firefighting tool that’s a bit lost on us today: a bed key, used to disassemble 18th century bed frames, which was often a house’s most valuable piece of furniture.
The Union Fire Company spurred a new trend, and volunteer companies began appearing all over New England, founded by patriots eager to protect their communities. But it took more than 100 years after the founding of the Union Fire for America’s first fully paid fire department to emerge. The city of Cincinnati claims this honor, and their slogan remains “First in the Nation.” By the time the department was founded in 1853, it was clear that there were always fires to be fought, ample bodies ready to fight them, and enough community funds to pay them. And firefighting technology had come a long way in the interim: steam engines replaced manual pumps, and fire hydrants decorated city streets. But it wasn’t in Cincinnati where they first appeared. In the next post, we turn our eyes to Philadelphia, and the first fire hydrants.