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Unloved Antiques: Brass & Copper Fire Extinguishers

by Mike Wilcox (08/06/12).

Brass and copper fire extinguishers, when polished and buffed, look like they should be worth something. But that impression simply led to a glut of these factory & warehouse staples. Yes, many of them are old—upwards of 100 years old or more—but are generally not worth the time and effort to polish them.

The next item in this series of Unloved Antiques is something that back in the 1980s no self-respecting flea market/antique stall was without: the soda-acid brass and copper fire extinguishers.

At the time, these brass and copper relics sold well, as polished, old-timey brass and copper items triggering some kind of magpie responses in the public for old shiny things. Like a great many outmoded, antiquated or just plain out-of-style items such as brass beds, fireplace fender and copper coal scuttles, these empty fire extinguishers slumbered forgotten and somehow survived the scrap-metal drives for both the First and Second World Wars in huge numbers. How this survival was possible, when both metals were needed for the war efforts is anybody’s guess. Stranger still is the public perception that they were somehow hard to find or are valuable in the first place.

A great many of these are genuine antiques that carry various patent dates and labels that attest to their antiquity without having to look too hard, fueling the venerable “if it’s old, it must be valuable” myth. Some are definitely quite old, as the first soda-acid extinguisher was patented in 1866 by Francois Carlier of France. It used sodium bicarbonate with tartaric acid, which when mixed with water, produced carbon dioxide gas and propelled the contents out of the extinguisher. An American version was patented in the U.S. by Almon M. Granger in 1881. It differed in its chemical contents as it used a sodium bicarbonate solution and sulfuric acid to create the pressure to force the contents out of the extinguisher and at the fire.

My theory on the perception and rarity of these things is it was it was a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy: seeing them all over in antique shops and flea markets and all polished and antique-y looking, people got the impression these must be rare or valuable. Anytime this happens, of course, everyone wants to get in on the action and tries to recall where they saw one sitting all dusty and tarnished. The end result of such thinking is a flooding of the market as tens of thousands of a currently “hot” item are dragged into the light of day from barns, attics or garages.

This is pretty much what happened to the market for antique extinguishers, by the early 1990s, the antique market was already slumping, decorating tastes changed and suddenly there were more polished brass or copper fire extinguishers than anyone knew what to do with. Since then, values have declined to the point it was hardly worth polishing them up. I do make a prediction though: their value may soon climb again. If copper and brass prices remain high or climb even higher, a new market demand for these antique extinguishers will appear, but not from collectors; from scrap metal dealers.

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Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs
Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Painting
Unloved Antiques: The American Old Family Bible
Unloved Antiques: That Stack of Old Books
Unloved Antiques: 20th Century Wedgwood Jasperware
Unloved Antiques: Bone China Tea Cup & Saucer Collection

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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