The Collector’s Minute: Leather Buckets

This leather bucket dates to the first Duke of Devonshire’s fire brigade, made in 1696. It’s one of only two known to currently exist.

Before the invention of steam-powered water pumps, fires were put out by water thrown by “bucket chains.” In these chains, men passed full leather buckets, some which held three gallons, from one to the other and on to the fire. The empty buckets were passed to women and children to be refilled from a well, pond or other source of water.

Leather buckets like this were made from the 1600s into the mid-1850s, but without documentation it’s impossible to determine their exact use or origin.

Leather buckets were preferred because they were lighter, easier to store than wooden ones and, when wet, would not burn. They also could be made or repaired by local cobblers.

Since this community usage was quite common in early times, fire buckets were often decorated with a name, initials or coats of arms so that they could be identified and returned to their rightful owners after a fire was extinguished.

Fire buckets were not just used by fire brigades, they were also used on ships by gunnery crews, who had to swab out cannon barrels with wet rags before reloading. They also found use in factories, which were often located far from the volunteer fire brigades of the day and required ready access to their own fire fighting equipment.

In the days before chemical and foam extinguishers, fire buckets used in factories often contained sand for uses against oil-based fires, which water would only spread and not extinguish.

It wasn’t until the appearance of steam-engine-powered pumpers and hose reels in the mid-19th-century that the bucket brigades became a thing of the past.

The fire bucket pictured is a very rare English one. This stitched-leather bucket decorated with a “Ducal” coronet and initial “D” was part of a set of 20 made in 1696 for the first Duke of Devonshire (1640-1707). Only two of this original set are known to survive.

Values for fire buckets depend a great deal on the decoration, condition and provenance. In the North American market, it’s the examples with original paint and company or fire-brigade insignia that are the most sought after. The Continental and English variety without any markings often sell for a good deal less.

In recent years, some rarer American examples have sold for as much as $45,000. This past year a rare matched pair of leather fire buckets marked “Washington Fire Company, N.F. Safford” and dated 1803 sold at auction for $16,000. More run of the mill leather fire buckets with minimal decoration can often be seen going at auction in the $150 to $300 range.

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

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