History of Volunteer Fire Departments in America

Fighting a fire in New York City, 1869 illustration

The firefighter is an iconic masculine figure. Through 19th century, the firefighter changed, but he remained in touch with popular views of American manhood.

Men who joined fire departments have always been in search of a way to express their masculinity. Through American history, definitions of manhood have changed. Independently of that cultural change, fire departments have also evolved. Despite the separate lines of development, firemen have continually found ways to connect to contemporary masculinity.

The First Fire Departments

Bruce Laurie, in Working People of Philadelphia, traces the origins of Philadelphia’s fire departments to Benjamin Franklin, who founded a volunteer department as a way to better the community. Franklin’s volunteer fire department was made up of town leaders and successful businessmen who saw community service as a part of the masculine duty. They met in public halls and had little professional knowledge. When fires broke out they organized bucket brigades using the threatened citizens as labor. With those techniques, they were not terribly effective, but they took their job seriously.

Lower Class Departments

By the 1830s, wealthier men had largely given up volunteering in order to focus on entrepreneurial activities so fire departments were given over to the lower classes. Technology had advanced, bringing leather hoses and portable pumps to the fight against fires. These were expensive though, and working class volunteer fire departments required public subsidies in order to afford them. Further, the equipment had to be stored somewhere, so cities were forced to construct fire houses.

Many of Philadelphia’s business class resented the firemen. They thought they spent too much time lounging around the fire house instead of engaging in more constructive activity. The firemen left work when the alarm bell sounded, upsetting their employers. In this way, firemen began to diverge from upper-class ideals of manhood.

Despite this, firemen fit the competitive, physical ideal of manhood among their own class. Each department craved the honor of being the one to put out a fire, so they would race other departments to the scene. Laurie tells stories of fire companies cutting the harnesses of other department’s carriages or breaking their wooden wheels in an attempt to beat them to a fire. Being a member of such an organization was an honor.

None of this made them any better at putting out fires than their gentlemanly predecessors. Firemen were as likely to work against another department as they were to work to put out a fire. By the late 1840s, competition among fire houses reached a zenith as neighborhood fire departments became affiliated with political machines. Political conflict led to physical conflict. At least once, fire companies exchanged musket fire over political rivalry and long-standing departmental competition. Yet the firemen were more than mere ruffians.

Reconciling Class Visions of Masculinity

In Parades and Power, another study of Philadelphia’s growth, Susan Davis uses descriptions of parades in the 1830s and 1840s to show that even the meanest working class fire department aspired to an upper class ideal of manhood. Companies that might be little more than gangs most of the time put on their finery for a parade. Pump carriages were outfitted like a medieval nobleman’s coach, complete with hangers-on dressed as footmen blowing trumpets. The men carried banners with mottoes like “All private duties are subordinated for those we owe to the public” or “Like Lafayette, we assist in time of need.”

These displays harkened back to the older manly emphasis on public service and represented a way of connecting the working class fire departments with upper class ideas of manhood. Davis writes “For fire companies, the gorgeous displays of resources could mitigate their working class identity.”

For firemen, being working class heroes wasn’t enough. They found ways to appeal to visions of masculinity across class lines.