Sound the Alarm! Vintage Glass Fire Grenades and Firehouse Memorabilia
A category of collectibles that has stayed red hot for decades!
Firemen’s helmets are one of the most popular items in the firehouse memorabilia category, as they are very personal items, and evoke feelings of heroism and camaraderie. This beautiful New York Fire Dept. helmet by Cairns & Brothers sold in July 2016 for $1350.
Firehouse collectibles are truly a special category that shows no signs of losing steam for collectors year after year. Collector interest is naturally replenished with each generation, as new firefighters join this most beloved and historical public service. If you talk to most collectors they’ll say, “Yeah, my dad was a fireman, and his dad before him.” And with the life and death situations they all live through over their careers, there is a natural tapestry of emotion woven into the items they wore and used in their daily work.
Firehouse collectibles are usually collected by a different crowd than fire extinguishers or fire grenades which were used in homes. I’ll touch on those two items as well, because they are both widely sought after collectibles in today’s market.
Firemen’s Helmets. Firemen’s helmets are one of the most popular items in this category, as they are very personal items, and evoke feelings of heroism and camaraderie. They are also simply beautiful to look at, especially in person. If you’ve ever held a heavy, leather lined 100 year old fire helmet, you know what I’m talking about. The natural wear and patina you’ll find on one of these rugged old helmets is something that you really can’t compare to anything else. What stories each of these old helmets could tell – each dark stain, each crack or dent, and the thousands of small scratches.
Putting any personal sentiment aside, the most desirable and valuable helmets are those made of steel or brass, covered with a hard and tight leather overlay. Other desirable features include the station or engine numbers, rank (chief), and personal or city names embroidered into the leather. Also, in some cases, the helmet mold itself had features on top like tapered points, finials, and even bald eagles at the front, which certainly add value. In general, most vintage firemen’s helmets sell at auction from between $200-$2000 range.
Fire hose brass nozzles are made of solid brass, and weigh a ton, and are always marked with the name of the company that made it. This simple brass fire hose nozzle by Elkhart Co. has a beautiful soft patina showing it’s age and sold for $199 in April 2017.
Fire Hose Brass Nozzles. If you’ve set up and sold at flea markets or antique shows, you’ve surely had someone come up asking if you have any firehouse items, especially brass hose nozzles. These are made of solid brass, and weigh a ton, and are always marked with the name of the company that made it. I’ve thought a bit about what it is that makes them so collectible, and I’ve come to the conclusion (in my opinion), that it is simply a “guy thing.” It seems very often that you’ll find that the things men typically collect (like for a den, or “man cave”), are things you can line up in a line like soldiers or military tanks. I’m thinking here of gun collections, trophy heads lined up on a wall, gasoline company tin signs, or rows and rows of vintage beer cans. This is just an innocent observation, no political or social statement intended! And I certainly find it true in this case with fire hose nozzles. They make for a terrific and impressive display when lined up in a row on a shelf, or along the floor near a fireplace hearth.
If you’re buying a fire hose nozzle, and putting any money into it, be sure it has the original handles on it, as some of the higher end nozzles were often “rebuilt” or restored as some point. Buying nozzles on Ebay or other online sites is tricky, because the older, more desirable brass nozzles weighed a ton, and your shipping cost will eat up the value you may be trying to purchase if you’re buying for resale. If you buy one online, look for one listed at a location near you that offers to let the customer come and pick the item up. The price ranges on these, when you see them in a shop or at a show, range from $50 for the smaller unmarked ones, to maybe $1500 for the very best ones ( heavier, and with detailed markings and unique form or design).
Fire Bell and Other Brass Items. There are other fire house items sought after by collectors, and the common theme often is what they are made out of – brass. Not everything is made of brass, but if you look at a fire house collection, you will surely be looking at some beautiful polished gold and silver brass or polished copper. These items include alarm bells, truck “clang” type bells, gauges of all types, and even the brass rails from the sides of the older trucks themselves.
Fire Extinguishers. In one of my hikes through the woods here in Maine a couple of years ago, I came upon a trash dumping site from the 1940s or so. I would prefer to be in an 1840s site, if I’m going to dig for bottles or relics. But I couldn’t help but at least poke around. I moved around some heavy pieces of sheet metal, and underneath them was a full size brass fire extinguisher! It looked to be in pretty good shape, and the copper outer case looked like it would polish up if I gave it some elbow grease. So I dragged it about a mile, all the way back to where I parked my truck. When I got home and looked on Worthpoint to find it’s value, I found one very similar, made by the same Boston Company as mine. It turned out to be a common one, worth about $150 in excellent condition. Long story short, I only got about $20 for mine, as the internal tank itself on mine was rusted and not worth restoring. Oh well, it was a good learning day anyways.
Fire extinguishers are generally in the same price range as the other items I’ve talked about above, ranging in value from $100 – $800, with some outliers. One subset of fire extinguishers is “automobile fire extinguishers.” This is a neat field of collectibles, with possibly a higher ceiling on the values, as they can be tied to other categories of collectibles, namely early autos. So if you have one of these extinguishers, and it was designed specifically to be stored under the seat of a 1920 Model T Ford, you’re in business!
Simple vintage clear glass fire grenades are interesting conversation pieces, but don’t bring much in value. If the glass was colored, or if there was a paper label or box with colorful graphics, it would help it’s value immensely. This clear grenade sold for $59.75 in January 2013.
Antique Glass Fire Grenades. Fire grenades are a glass collectible that is a true specialty item. These were used in the late 19th Century, and well in to the 20th Century, to extinguish mainly chimney and fireplace fires that had gotten out of control. They were kept near the hearthside, or mounted to walls with a metal bracket or small wooden box. The idea was if you had to, you would throw and smash the glass ball at the base of the fire, in hopes of knocking the fire down. The grenades were sealed glass orbs that were filled with a liquid fire suppressant, usually a chemical called carbon tetrachloride. This chemical isn’t terribly dangerous, but if you spilled it, or used it to put out a fire, you would want to use common sense the same as you would with any strong kitchen type chemical.
The fact that the extinguisher contains a liquid is definitely a hassle when you go to sell one. If they are empty, there is no issue, but if still filled, you really can’t ship them, and it just creates a hesitation when someone new to the hobby considers buying one.
There are some very plain types, made with clear glass, usually not very large, maybe 6-8″ of glass, that had no fancy or decorative patterns on the glass or design. These are sold as objects of historical interest, but to be honest, they aren’t very collectible. The colored variants and styles, which were prevalent in the 1890s are very beautiful, interesting, and collectible! The foremost manufacturer of these fancier fire grenades was the Harden Fire Grenade Co. out of Chicago, Ill. These measured more in the 8-10″ range, and were made usually of cobalt glass, but occasionally in amber, yellow, green, and other vibrant shades of bottle quality glass.
A gorgeous collection of high end glass fire grenades, as seen at RicksBottleRoom.com, a great reference site online.
Occasionally you will find them with a paper label on the flat round panel, opposite the panel that will be embossed with the company name and city. Cobalt blue Harden glass grenades are the most common, but are very collectible, and consistently bring between $150- $300. However, fire grenades embossed with other company names, and in different colors, can bring upwards of $5,000 at auction.
Throughout history, house fires have had the potential to be terrible tragedies. It is ironic, and maybe a silver lining of sorts, that an entire hobby and family of collectibles was created, which pays homage to these tribulations that sometimes occur in our daily lives.
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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