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Fighting Fires in Colonial America

Early colonial settlements were often big fires waiting to happen. How did people protect their communities over three hundred years ago?

Source: Denver Firefighter Museum

The Great Fire of New York, 1776, by Franz Xaver Habermann (source)

As in many societies throughout history, Colonial America had a  complicated relationship with fire. On one hand, it was an important  source of warmth, light, and power. On the other, however, fire could  also pose a significant threat to burgeoning communities throughout the  colonies. Fires big and small could injure people and devastate their  livelihoods. How, then, were European settlers in the Americas able to  negotiate such a complicated state of affairs?

First,  it’s important to acknowledge the ever-present nature of fire in  everyday 18th century life. Colonial Americans used candles to see. They  employed hearths to cook food and warm their homes. Fire could be  important to a given career as well, such as metalwork and  blacksmithing. Without fire, these people would have been cold, hungry,  and bereft of the small luxuries and necessities of their lives (such as  horseshoes and teapots).

However, their  communities were not often prepared to deal with out-of-control fires.  Homes were typically made out of flammable materials, such as wood. Only  the richest members of society were able to afford homes constructed  out of brick and stone.

Even then, many homes were full  of textiles, feed, paper, and other materials that could catch fire.  Simply living in a brick home was no guarantee that you’d escape fire.  In the early 18th century, buildings in Williamsburg, Virginia such as  those belonging to the College of William and Mary and the state Capitol  were beset by flames.

So,  what to do? Of course, there were no such things as modern fire  engines, with their great speed, massive water tanks, and heavy duty  fire hoses. Instead, colonial citizens often relied on sheer human  power. During a fire, you would likely participate in a “bucket  brigade”, where a line of people passed leather water buckets back and  forth to the scene of a fire.

If a fire was caught  early enough, a fast and determined bucket brigade might get it under  control. Larger flames, however, required more work and ingenuity. Later  in the century, hand-pumped fire engines began to make their  appearance, especially in larger towns. These rigs could carry more  water and put out fires with greater force than bucket brigades.

In 1772, Williamsburg, Virginia planned to hire a watch. The City Council planned that it would consist of four sober and discreet People… They are likewise to have the Care of the FIRE ENGINES, and to be  ready, in Cases of Accidents by Fire, to give their Assistance towards  extinguishing the same.

Most fire  companies were volunteer efforts. Regular citizens could lend their hand  to fighting fires, and even may have felt compelled to raise funds for  firefighting equipment and direct others at the scene of fires.

Benjamin Franklin, The Fireman, by Charles Washington Wright (painted in 1850) (source)

Founding father Benjamin  Franklin took inspiration from the “firefighting clubs” of Boston when  he suggested that Philadelphia establish a similar force. Indeed, he helped to organize the Union Fire Company, which incorporated in 1736.

But,  more than anything else, increased awareness of fire prevention may  have made the biggest difference. Again, Ben Franklin had a lot to say  about the subject. In a 1735 issue of The Pennsyvania Gazette, he published an anonymous letter that said

In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I  would advise ’em to take care how they suffer living Coals in a full  Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down  Stairs, unless in a Warmingpan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into  Chinks and make no Appearance until Midnight; when your Stairs being in  Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows,  and hazard your Necks to avoid being oven-roasted.

Fire  codes and fire prevention would soon become important tools in a  community’s efforts against fire. Municipal rules about buildings,  construction, and city planning helped to prevent major fires.

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