Precision Fire Protection News
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?
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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