Fire and Water

Smithsonian Acquires World-Class Firefighting and Maritime Collection

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is the recipient of an unmatched collection representing the heyday of volunteer firefighting in America. A gift from CIGNA Corp. and its predecessor companies, this unparalleled private collection of firefighting and maritime history objects contains nearly 4,000 pieces of art and historical artifacts, with some objects dating back more than 250 years. To mark the acquisition of this gift, the museum will allow visitors a special behind-the-scenes look at the collection as it arrives. “Fire and Water: The CIGNA Firefighting and Maritime Collection” will showcase the objects from the new collection as they are being unpacked, processed and documented by museum staff. “This collection represents a remarkable opportunity for the museum to become one of the premier facilities in America for firefighting history and research and will give us a complete representation of the history of early firefighting in America,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. The almost 4,000-piece collection, known as the “Historical Collection of the Insurance Company of North America,” increases the museum’s firefighting collection tenfold, represents one of the most extensive holdings of early firefighting materials from the mid-1800s and illustrates CIGNA’s early business history as the nation’s oldest fire and marine insurer. “We determined that the unique art and historical artifacts in our collection could be more widely appreciated if they were more accessible to the public,” said John Cannon, senior vice president of CIGNA Public Affairs, describing one of the largest privately held collections of its kind. “We are honored to give this significant collection to the Smithsonian.” CIGNA Corp. began as the Insurance Company of North America in 1792 and has since grown to become one of the largest investor-owned health and related benefits organizations in the United States. In the early 19th century, the company began collecting, commissioning and preserving maritime and firefighting objects related to its various lines of business, as well as its founding in Philadelphia. The collection dates from around 1750 to the mid-20th century. The marine and firefighting objects help reflect the political, technological, social and cultural history of the nation and its cities. The collection includes hand pumpers, horse-drawn steam engines and ladder trucks, as well as models of these and other firefighting equipment; the most extensive private collection of American fire marks, which are signs placed on the outside of a building as proof of fire insurance; fire engine panels; and firemen’s work helmets, belts and fire buckets. The Smithsonian has enjoyed a long relationship with CIGNA Corp. and its predecessor companies. In 1936, CIGNA loaned firefighting objects for an exhibition in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building; then in 1978, the company donated a number of items to the museum’s Hall of American Maritime Enterprise. Highlights from the CIGNA Maritime and Firefighting Collection
  • Hand-Drawn Hose Reel by Robert Frazier — This ornamented hose reel circa 1850 could carry 400 to 600 feet of leather hose. Engines were considered the female presence in the firehouse, and firefighters adorned them with elaborately painted panels, gilt ornaments and etched, colored lamps.
  • Rotary Hand Pump Model — This early 20th-century model represents the original 18th-century engine purchased by the Darby Fire Company No. 1 of Pennsylvania in 1833. Similar engines were imported from England until the American Revolution, when domestic manufacturing became essential.
  • Parade Hat by David Bowser — This ceremonial parade hat of the Phoenix Hose Company depicts a phoenix rising from flames. Fire companies played an important role in shaping the public life of urban America by holding parades, sponsoring physical competitions and visiting with firemen in other communities.
  • “Benjamin Franklin, The Fireman” by Charles Washington Wright — This painting features Franklin wearing a fire helmet. Franklin was among the first to organize volunteer firefighting companies in Philadelphia.
  • “Queen of the Ocean Going to the Rescue of the Ocean Monarch” by Samuel Walters — This 1848 painting illustrates one of the most dramatic marine disasters of the 19th20century: the burning of the Ocean Monarch, an American ship carrying immigrants from Liverpool, England, to Boston.
  • Wooden model of the ship Kate — This unique courtroom model, specially commissioned by the Insurance Company of North America, now the CIGNA Corp., circa 1850 was created to illustrate to judges and juries how accidents (sinkings, collisions, founderings, groundings, etc.) happened.
**Editor’s Note: “Fire and Water: The CIGNA Firefighting and Maritime Collection” is on view now. Visitors can observe staff processing the collection through a large window Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Inquire at the information desk about additional viewing times. The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage through exhibitions and public programs about social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum, located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at or call (202) 633-1000, (202) 357-1729 (TTY).
Media only: Melinda Machado/ Michelle Werts (202) 633-3129 Media Web site: Public only: (202) 633-1000