The Firefighters ExhibitThe Lost Museum Archive
Fire fighting in the mid-nineteenth century was a dangerous, difficult, labor-intensive, and often unsuccessful endeavor. Gas lighting, high-density wooden structures, and hand-operated water pumps in New York City meant fires spread easily and burning buildings collapsed injuring residents and firemen before the fires could be controlled. When Barnum’s American Museum burned in July 1865, the State legislature was initiating a major change in New York City’s fire department from a volunteer to a paid system. Since the 1790s firemen were organized into an official voluntary system that allowed release from military and jury duty as the only compensation. As volunteer fire companies replaced bucket brigades in the 1820s, the force drew larger numbers of young working class men as fire "laddies," and the fire houses became social clubs. The sense of community and pride in the skills and stamina needed to fight fires, as well as the opportunity for political patronage, created loyal cadres of fire companies throughout the city each with their own distinctive name and insignia. Each company had a strong following of neighborhood boys who would run to the fire houses whenever the fire bells rang to assist in dragging the heavy machinery through the streets. The volunteer fire companies often competed with one another to be the first to a fire or the most efficient in putting it out. By the mid-nineteenth century these competitions had become infamous for their rowdiness and many middle-class reformers as well as insurance companies advocated for a professional fire department following the model of the recently professionalized police department. Much of the pressure for the paid fire department came from Republican Party supporters who viewed the Irish immigrant fire laddies as Democratic Party supporters and wanted a state-run fire commission that would give the Republicans in the State legislature more political leverage in the city. The move to horse-drawn, steam-powered pumpers in the 1850s reduced the need for large numbers of volunteers and made a smaller, paid force feasible.