National Museum of American History Explores 19th-Century Firefighting
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will explore firefighting in 19th-century America with the display “Always Ready,” a title drawn from a common motto of the fire companies of the time. Opening Sept. 16, the showcase will pinpoint three distinct moments: 1800, 1835 and 1870, all of which spotlight the firefighting methods, practices and technology used at a time when firefighting transitioned from community response to volunteer companies to paid work. The showcase complements the museum’s 2016 theme of "America Participates,” which highlights the ways participation has shaped various aspects of American life, culture and democracy.
At the start of the 19th century, simple fire engines and startup fire companies provided ample opportunity for men, women and even children to play an active role in protecting their community. While fire companies provided specified equipment and service, citizens participated by carrying water in communal buckets or helped to salvage property from a burning building. As volunteer fire companies became more organized and as advancements such as the leather hose and city water systems developed, roles for ordinary citizens at the scene of a fire became limited. Eventually by 1872, all major U.S. cities had formed paid municipal companies, exchanging volunteers for career firefighters that were trained and specialized under a uniform service. However, to this day, volunteer firefighters still protect many American communities.
“In the museum, we look at firefighting as a community activity, one that draws on citizens’ involvement,” said Curator Timothy Winkle. “Major changes in just this 70-year period, for example, the introduction of reliable fire hoses meant that not everyone in the community was needed to put out a fire, and the exhibit shows what that meant in shaping American firefighting.”
The display includes two models of hand-pumped fire engines and a steam engine model: an early 19th-century Philadelphia model designed for use with buckets, a New York-style model designed for crowded streets and a steam-engine model that represents the technological advancements of the latter part of the century. Tools on display include a metal speaking trumpet used by officers to delegate duties, a “bed key” used to disassemble wooden bed frames and personalized leather fire buckets that many property owners were legally required to own. Also on view are a painted fire hat used by Philadelphia’s Phoenix Hose Co, a silver-plated presentation torch used in parades, and several 19th-century fire badges, among others.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy and culture. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue, between 12th and 14th streets N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. for extended summer hours until Sept. 4. Admission is free. For more information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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