Making Professional Fire Departments

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Fighting a fire in New York City, 1869 illustration

From 1840 to 1880, the fireman changed and the public noticed. He went from being a volunteer with suspect political affiliations to being a respected professional.

Its hard to imagine, but there was a time when firemen were not admired. They were viewed as slackers who joined the department to get out of work. It was likely they would fight another department rather than put out the fire. That was a different time though, in the middle 1800s. Soon after that, cities created professional fire departments, and the fireman became every little boy’s hero. How did this happen and why did the professional, heroic fireman not emerge sooner?

The Stubborn Volunteer

On the surface, the transition appears so logical as to be inevitable. Professional firemen would be better trained and disciplined, so they should do a better job. Despite that, many cities fought against professionalizing their departments. In some respects, it makes sense that people might want to keep local control of their firemen, especially if they were a source of neighborhood pride as Susan Davis argued in Parades and Power. Moreover, fire departments had become active in urban machine politics, a development which granted them a measure of immunity from the calls for professionalization. In Cause for Alarm, Amy Greenberg found that seventeen of St. Louis’ first nineteen mayors were volunteer firemen. These firemen turned politicians guaranteed funding for the volunteer departments and fought for them when others wanted a professional fire department. This association with urban machine politics irritated reformers, but they did not have enough strength to beat the machine.

Changing Cities, Changing Needs

The urban environment was changing though and fire departments had to keep up. Small wooden buildings were replaced by large factories and skyscrapers. This created new challenges for the firemen and also new ways of demonstrating public heroism. Firefighting equipment had not advanced to make the top floors of skyscrapers accessible in case of a fire, so firemen had to improvise. They invented a combination rope ladder/grappling hook that could be attached to an above window ledge, allowing firemen to climb a building one story at a time to reach top floors. Physical bravery like this made firemen into heroes.

As Angel Kwolek-Folland outlined in Engendering Business, insurance companies grew rapidly after the Civil War. This had a direct impact on how fires were fought. It was clearly in the best interests of the new insurance companies to have a capable fire department ready to protect buildings insured by the company. In the 1860s and 1870s, nearly every urban volunteer fire department was replaced by paid professionals. This happened because of the influence that wealthy insurers brought to bear on city governments. The local political machine might benefit from having the fire department under their thumb, but no politician could afford to offend wealthy businessmen.

New Gear, New Image

In Eating Smoke, Mark Tebeau finds meaning in the firefighters’ appearance. The late 1800s was the first time firemen began to wear scientifically designed protective gear. While that gear was designed to protect the firemen’s safety it also served to enhance the male figure. The emblematic large, peaked helmet made men seem taller. Their heavy coats made their chests appear bigger and their shoulders broader. Artists’ renditions from popular publications like the Saturday Evening Post support the idea that the public was aware of the virile figure the firemen cut in their gear.

In forty years, from 1840 to 1880, the fireman changed and the public noticed. In 1840 he was a roughhousing commoner with a day job. By 1880, he was a professional with the respect of his countrymen as well as a cool uniform. His good deeds and strong, masculine appearance elevated him from brawler to hero.