Enjoying A Revival

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, April 2006 

Heavy cast iron rectangular fire mark. Clasped hands and "1794" in relief in gold and black background. Baltimore Equitable Society, Baltimore, Maryland, Issued in 1927

    America’s firemen have a long and exciting history that dates before the American Revolution, when they were volunteers. It wasn’t till after the steam engine came into use in 1852 that fire fighters became paid professionals.  Fortunately for historians and collectors many of their early artifacts have survived. Surprisingly, when they make a rare auction appearance, prices are affordable. At the James Julia, Maine auction, many wonderful pieces sold well below estimate. A painted leather fire bucket dated 1789 estimated at $4,000/6,000 fetched $3,737.50.  A heavy cast iron fire mark with clasped hands and “1794” in relief in gold, issued in 1927 sold for $575. The estimate was $500/1,000.

Painted leather mustard fire bucket "G.O. Fowler" Sold for $920

    Collector’s have had a long love affair with fire fighting memorabilia that includes everything from fire buckets, parade helmets and trumpets to daguerreotypes and even sheet music. 

    Their equipment is equally collectible and includes fire engines, hose and reel carts.

    The earliest items available to collectors usually dates from the early 19th century. It was those fire-fighting methods that have left us our most interesting and valuable collectibles. Consider the leather buckets once used to carry water from nearby water sources to the fires.

Painted leather fire bucket marked "Lewis Barnes No 1-1789". The front in black with a burning tree in black oval. The bottom of the oval Federal F.S. (federal Fire Society) with the date "1789" below. Fourteen stripes on the back side alternating vertically in red, white and black, This is typical of buckets found in the Portsmouth, NH area. Sold for $3,737.50

    In the Colonies it was the leather buckets, made by local cobblers, that were the only means to transport water to the fire sites. The buckets held about three gallons of water.

    They were passed from hand to hand by lines of sturdy, male volunteers. When emptied they were returned by another line of boys and women, to be refilled.

    The buckets were painted and gilded with bright colors and patriotic symbols. They identified the Fire Company names and the date they were made. The most interesting have lavish illustrations. One choice bucket at the Julia auction , was dated 1806 and featured a large painting of Gabrielle blowing her horn. It sold for $3,450. Despite rarity, condition can still make a big difference in price. A painted leather fire bucket” Columbian Eagle Fire Society” with a large painted eagle, dating 1807, only fetched $575 at the auction. It had considerable cracking and chipping to the painting surface. The estimate was $1,000/1,500. If they only have the number of the firehouse the price is a couple of hundred dollars.

    By the mid-eighteenth  century hand pumpers were in use, but it was still a time-consuming process. Fortunately over the decades new developments, such as gooseneck fire engines , were in use, followed by stronger water pumping methods.

    The invention of the steam  engine and hose reel in the mid 19th century saw the end of the bucket brigades. However this early equipment was also painted and decorated. Most are in museums.

Painted leather fire bucket marked "Thomas C. Armory 1806". Green bucket has large painting of Gabrielle blowing her horn. She has a red cape and is surrounded by a banner in a mustard light orange. At the base is an intertwined scroll banner "Active 1806".

    Even the undecorated, utilitarian items, such as a section of leather riveted hose with couplings can find an auction buyer for over $2,000. The reason is, the riveted, leather house was the first type used, patented in 1817. By the late 19th century new, improved types were used. These days it is considered collectible and rare. Ornate, iron hose holders are also important collectibles.

    The yearly fire fighters parade was an important occasion in cities and towns around the country in the late 19th century. The special items worn and used at the events are important collectibles. The costumes worn by the different fire companies were colorful and special decorations were painted on engine panels. Famous artists , such as Thomas Sully and Joseph Johnson, were commissioned to paint panel motifs. These included scenes from mythology  or historical American battle scenes and heroes. They were finished off with silver plate, burnished brass and gold leaf trim.

    Presentation pieces, awarded to fire departments included fire horns, trumpets, brass nozzles, walking sticks, shields and signs. The dated and engraved trumpets and horns were usually of silver or silver plate. When they have interesting , engraved decorations they have sold at auction from several hundred to over twelve thousand dollars.

    Even working helmets were adorned with metal trim called “fronts”. Some were even topped with a metal ornament of a horse or eagle. Depending or their age and decorations, helmets can be had at auction for a couple of hundred dollars. The more ornate the higher the price.

    Since the 1950s metal fire marks from the 19th century have been collected. Originally they were mounted on buildings to show that the buildings were covered by fire insurance.

One of a pair of painted leather fire buckets marked "Johnson 1821"

    Each insurance company had its’ own design. They were made of tin, brass, lead, cast iron, aluminum and zinc. Among the most interesting designs are those showing the early fire engines. Fire marks have been reproduced as have the leather buckets. The repro buckets can be recognized by flat, leather strip handles. The originals were rolled and sewn.

    Engine lamps , with etched glass designs and company numbers, as well as fire department lanterns are still available and can be had for several hundred dollars.

    Fire fighter art can be either color lithographs or daguerreotypes of the fire fighters themselves. Some of the lithographs were used advertisers of insurance or builders.

    Popular since they were first printed are Currier & Ives lithographs depicting important historical fires, such as “Chicago in Flames, The Great Fire in Boston . They are priced in the low hundreds at auction. The subjects were printed by others as well.

    Certificates can turn up anywhere and it is their artwork that makes them desirable. 

    Carte de visits, daguerreotypes, albumen photographs, ambrotypes ,with engines and fire fighters add to the interest of any collection and show the history of American fire fighting. Most common are the daguerreotype portraits of individual fire fighters, done for their Company.

    Another possibility are designs that symbolize fire fighting, rather than the object itself. 

    For instance, you might find a cigar box or metal ashtray depicting fire fighting. Some very handsome match safes were also produced with images of engines and fire fighters. Old tobacco tins were also produced on the subject. Postcards and sheet music often illustrated historic fire scenes and equipment.

      There are many small items waiting to be discovered in miscellaneous boxes at garage sales and even dealers cases. Badges and watch fobs among them.

    Who says they have to be old ? Fire fighting history is still being made, and so are future collectibles.

If you have any questions, you can Email us at

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