Our fire engine has a secret message. For a few years now, this hand-pumped engine has been on display on the museum's first floor. For a practical piece of firefighting equipment, it's elaborately decorated—brass fixtures, carved swans, and painted panels on all four sides of its central tower. At the top of that tower, engraved brass plates declare this to be the engine of the venerable Hand in Hand Fire Company of Philadelphia and bear the motto "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." But before it was acquired in the 1880s by veteran volunteer firefighters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and turned into a parade piece, the pumper saw action on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, starting in 1842. Remove those brass plates and there are other words underneath, the name of the pumper's original owners—Washington Fire Company—and their Latin motto—"Non Sibi Sed Omnibus" (roughly translated "Not for self, but for all.")
It's certainly a good phrase that sums up the heroics and sacrifice that are inherent in firefighting, even more so when you consider that these words come down to us from a time when all firefighting in America was performed by volunteers. In the late 18th and early 19th century, in big city neighborhoods and small towns alike, members of the community banded together to protect their fellow citizens, founding fire companies and purchasing equipment such as hand engines and hose. These volunteer companies were the focus of community pride, lauded as the epitome of selfless service and manly republican virtue. The companies reflected their status in their appearance and equipment, from painted hats to elaborate engines, deployed in public parades and fire scenes alike. As a point of emphasis and identity, volunteers selected a motto to summarize their service and the spirit of their particular company. Some of the most interesting choices come from Philadelphia, a city with a long history of organized firefighting, dating back to Benjamin Franklin's establishment of the Union Fire Company in 1736.
Some fire company mottos were as straightforward as they were aspirational. Resolution Hose Company insisted "To Be Useful is Our Wish." Fairmount Fire Company was "Prompt to Action." Other companies shared similar sentiments, with mottos such as "Always Ready" and "When Duty Calls, Tis Ours to Obey."
Other mottos were pointedly self-referential. "Our Name is Our Motto" stated the Good Will Fire Company. Lafayette Hose Company claimed "Like La Fayette, We Will Assist in Time of Need." Another company chose Pennsylvania's founder as its namesake. The William Penn Hose Company declared "Like Penn, We Will Be Useful to Our Country." Some references have grown obscure with time. "We Honor Him Whose Name We Bear" announced the Ringgold Hose Company. Few Americans of the time would not have known the name Ringgold, but I had to look him up. Samuel Ringgold was a pioneering artillery officer and early casualty in Mexican-American War. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Palo Alto in May 1846, he remained in the field and continued to direct his men. His bravery was an inspiration for the nation—songs were written and towns were named in his honor, as well as a certain Philadelphia hose company less than a year after his death.
Patriotic mottos were commonplace, such as this declaration of the Independence Hose Company that "Our Country is Our Glory." With such lofty sentiments to convey, mottos weren't always pithy. Inspired by their namesake, Washington Hose Company avowed "All Private Duties are Subordinate to Those Which We Owe the Public"—a noble notion, but not exactly bumper sticker material. Others were somewhat convoluted. Diligent Hose Company ran under the motto "The Impulse to Action is the Danger of Our Citizens," a phrasing just tortured enough to warrant a second reading. Mottos also sprang from a common heritage, as with the Assistance Fire Company, whose motto—"Bereit"—reflected its founding by German Lutherans.
Some mottos seem downright obscure. Hand in Hand Fire Company's original motto was "Proximus Ardet Ucalegon." Anyone? Wait, I'll translate it—"Ucalegon's house burns next." Still nothing? The line comes directly from Virgil's Aeneid. An elder of the city of Troy, Ucalegon (who name in Greek means "not worried") loses his home to fire when the Achaeans sack the city. A 19th century expression that meant a dangerous or dire situation, for the members of the Hand in Hand Company, it also conveyed their public identity as vital and vigorous citizens of the young republic.
At this time, Americans with even the most nominal education would have a passing familiarity with the Greek and Roman classics. Those with formal schooling would have been fully steeped in Latin and Greek and the authors and orators of antiquity. There was a patriotic element to this classical education. In the minds of its founders, the American experiment consciously harkened back to republics of the past, and republics required educated and virtuous citizens to succeed. Even the simple use of a Latin maxim over its English translation spoke volumes, and connected the past with the promise of the present.
Some of the volunteer fire companies in antebellum Philadelphia seemed to be in a competition to see who could come up with the most learned motto. Perseverance Hose Company kept it simple, choosing "Perseverantia Omnia Vincit" ("Perseverance conquers all things"). Likewise, Fame Hose Company went with "Fama Extenditur Factis" ("Fame spreads our deeds").
The members of the Phoenix Hose Company doubled up on their classical allusions, choosing the fiery mythological bird as their symbol and "Surgo Lucidius" ("I arise in radiance") as their motto. Jumping forward to the 13th century, Hope Hose Company went relatively modern, referencing Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica and declaring "Omnia Actus Specificatur ab Objecto" ("Every act is specified by its object").
Perhaps the Humane Fire Company achieved the ultimate classical motto in its mashup of Greek and Latin. Not content with just the Aristotelian pronouncement "Ou Gnosis Alla Praxis" ("Not knowledge but action"), the members of Humane presented a further challenge to their fellow citizens by adding the Latin aphorism, "Spectemur Agendo" ("Judge us by our actions").
The mottos of 19th century fire companies spoke volumes about their standing in their communities, the aspirations of their members, and their identity as Americans. But at their core, these mottos were a promise to protect and serve. With this in mind, my favorite motto might be the most honest. It comes from the smallest fire engine in our collection, a little two-person hand tub that would have struggled to extinguish all but the smallest fires. Its motto? "We'll Try."
Tim Winkle is a curator and deputy chair in the Division of Home and Community Life. Explore the development and evolution of American firefighting in the upcoming display Always Ready: Fighting Fire in the 19th Century. It opens September 16, 2016.