Cincinnati Offers a Hotbed of Early Firefighter Collectibles

A tintype of a mid-19th-century fireman, complete with the sitter's silver belt plate. Note the fire hat and fire horn in the background. There is currently a surge of interest in antique firefighting equipment.

Fathers, ask your sons today what they want to be when they grow up. The answer isn’t the same as it was when you were a kid, when the answer was reliable: a fireman. Today, however, he may say “rescue hero,” considering our ever-growing regard for the brave New York City firefighters since 9/11.

More than 150 years ago, having created an entirely new system of firefighting, it was the Cincinnati Fire Department that was world-renowned. And it was large American cities like St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago, Boston, Nashville and Philadelphia that were copying Cincinnati’s leading innovations.

Among these innovations are three firsts in firefighting history:

This nickel-plated brass fireman's trumpet would sell for about $700.

1. First, Full-Time, Paid Firemen: While still subject to debate 157 years after the fact, on April 1, 1853, Cincinnati created the first paid, full-time fire department. As early as 1837 Boston had established a paid force but, similar to being contract employees, the firemen earned only a small fee for each fire they attended. In the early 1850s, the city of Boston began paying its part-time firemen an annual salary. Still, these Boston firemen maintained other conventional occupations, unlike the full-time fireman who were earning a set salary in Cincinnati.

2. First to Use Steam to Operate Fire Engine Pumps: In 1852, with the co-operation of city fire engineer Robert Bray, three Cincinnatians—Abel Shawk and Alexander and Edminston Latta of the Latta Brothers Company—perfected the first steam engine pump for putting out fires. It was designed as a working model of a steam fire engine that took very little time to generate sufficient power for pumping water with force. Named “Uncle Joe Ross” after the city council member who appropriated $5,000 for its inception, its first recorded use was in Cincinnati on Feb. 8, 1853. (While there had been a steam fire engine used in New York, it performed poorly compared to the Cincinnati machine.) By 1863, Cincinnati had replaced all of its hand-engines with steamers. The American Fire Engine Company, owned by Christopher Aherns, purchased control of the Latta Brothers Company in 1877 and became the oldest and largest manufacturer of steam fire engines in the world. It had locations in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and Cincinnati, Ohio. Every Ahren’s fire engine sold around the world had a “Made in Cincinnati” plaque on it—a great source of civic pride for Cincinnatians.

3. First to Use Horses to Pull Fire Engines. Cincinnati also boasts the first recorded use of horses to pull fire engines. Cities began to compete for impressive, matching black, white, dapple grey or chestnut teams. Fire horses were amazingly alert and well-trained. They were kept in box stalls facing out and when the fire alarms went off they were released. They would head towards the ladder wagon or pumper to the exact positions they were trained to stand. The horses were also trained to stand quietly undaunted by smoke debris, and scorching heat.

With such great history, there is a wide choice of firefighting memorabilia for collectors, including lanterns and fire marks. Some fire lanterns served as “headlights” for the engines before the days of street lights. Others, carried by firemen, helped them see through dense smoke. Fire marks, metal plaques mounted on the outside of buildings indicated that buildings were insured and the company they were insured with. These fire marks actually became advertisements for the insurance companies. Individual homeowners were issued certificates and some owners who gave more money were given “Life Memberships.”

This exceptional painted fireman's parade hat from 1833 has a value of $25,000. Its “stove pipe” design is a good example of the popular eagle image.

Also popular among collectors are the first “Stove Pipe” hats in America, specifically designed for firefighters and introduced in New York City in 1740. Parade hats were used at picnics, holiday parades, county fairs and militia musters. Their design was often influenced by religious, ethnic, geographical, political or occupational considerations, or to honor heroic personages such as William Penn, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Steven Decatur. The eagle, a symbol of American pride, often appears on parade helmets.

A leather fireman's helmet from the Union Fire Company is an example of the traditional fireman's hat with a rounded crown and extended rear brim.

In the 1830s another hat style developed that had a rounded crown with an extended brim in the rear. These fire helmets resembled an ancient Roman helmet with crowns constructed in four separate sections, since their crowns lasted longer than one-piece helmets. The crown was placed on a huge brim and through skillful scoring and crimping the hat became one integral unit. These seams provided extra strength. The tin had to be soft enough to bend a little or the helmet would make an awful bang when falling debris struck it. The brims were very strong and some firemen used the brims to break glass in a door or window. Brims were about four inches wide in the back to keep the water draining off instead of down the fireman’s neck and back. The hats were often worn with the tail section in the front in order to shield the fireman’s eyes from heat and falling debris.

Hats of different colors distinguished firemen of different units: red for engine companies and black for ladder companies. A fire marshal’s helmet and rubber coat were both white.

With the current surge of interest in antique firefighting equipment this is an excellent time to be keeping a sharp eye out for these collectibles.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

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