Beginning in the late 18th century, some volunteer fire fighters began to wear hats painted with their company’s name to identify themselves at chaotic fire scenes. During the 19th century, these fire hats became more ornate, as portraits of historical figures, patriotic scenes, allegorical images, or company icons were painted alongside the company’s name, motto, or founding date. Made of pressed felt, these “stove-pipe” hats were primarily used in Philadelphia, but other nearby cities such as Baltimore and Washington adopted them as well. Fire hats were personal items with the owner’s initials often painted on the top of the hat. While these hats were worn at fires, they are more colloquially known as “parade hats.” Fire companies commonly marched in the many parades of the period and these ornate hats contributed to the visual culture of their day. These distinguishing features in a company’s regalia often proclaimed the members’ cultural and political identity as well as their position on contested topics such as work, religion and immigration.
The artistry on this Northern Liberty Hose Company hat combines a number of patriotic emblems. The female figure, an allegorical image of Liberty, is a personification of the United States. In her left hand, she holds a pole with a red liberty cap on top. The liberty cap was originally a Roman symbol given to freed slaves. It became an internationally known symbol of the American Revolution when colonists carried them atop poles in parades and rallies. This fire hat was used by a member of the Northern Liberty Hose Company No. 16 of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, organized in 1828. Also known as Northern Liberty Hose Company No. 4, it operated as a hose company in the Northern Liberty section of Philadelphia. It acquired a steam fire engine in 1859 and changed its name to the Northern Liberty Hose and Steam Fire Engine Company No. 4. It operated until 1871 when Philadelphia’s paid firefighting department was established.
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