In this interview, former fireman Don Croucher talks about firefighting collectibles, from department badges to actual fire trucks. Croucher, who retired in 2001 after 35 years in the fire service, also discusses such major fire apparatus manufacturers as Crown and Seagrave and a project to establish the California Fire Museum.
I started collecting firefighting memorabilia in the 1960s around the time I became a volunteer fireman here in Orange County. My great grandfather was a fire chief in Massachusetts, so I guess it’s in my blood. After we moved from Massachusetts to California in the ’60s, I could hear from my house the volunteer fire department’s siren going off several times a week. That created an interest in firefighting, too.
Eventually, I was hired by the California Department of Forestry in San Diego, which contracts with local rural communities and cities throughout California. When I worked in San Diego, they contracted with the Grossmont/Mt. Helix Fire District.
I began collecting HO scale fire trucks, and the smaller ones made by Matchbox and Hot Wheels. As my friends and relatives learned about my hobby, they started giving trucks to me for Christmas and birthdays. They wouldn’t always choose little ones, so before long I was collecting all sizes.
I had a real fire truck at one point. I don’t have it now. Over the years, I’ve had several larger ones. Living fairly close to the ocean, it’s hard to maintain them because of the salt air. The largest model I have now is a three-foot-long Crown fire truck.
Crown originally made school buses in Los Angeles, but in the ’50s they started building fire trucks and became a major manufacturer. L.A. City and L.A. County used Crown vehicles because they were built locally. Both had more than 130 Crown fire vehicles in their fleet back in Crown’s heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.
In the mid-’80s, Crown had to shut down because its fire trucks were mainly custom-built. They’d start with a frame on two sawhorses and build it from the ground up. Although they made some of the best fire trucks, they couldn’t compete with manufacturers making them on the assembly line.
Van Pelt near San Francisco also custom-built fire trucks. But Crown’s were so well built that they lasted for years. After I left San Diego, I transferred to the Orange County Fire Department. That’s where I retired. We had more than 50 Crowns in our fleet. I drove one for 10 years. They were so well made that they actually remanufactured the old ones. They’d have them completely torn down, and put new pumps and motors in them. They’d repaint and re-chrome them and get another 15 years of use.
I helped form the Crown Fire Coach Enthusiasts, a West Coast antique fire apparatus club. The 80 or so Crown owners in the club have saved a lot of the Crown fire apparatus. There are clubs all over the U.S. for manufacturers like Seagrave and American LaFrance. The Crown club, which probably has around 300 members, meets several times a year. Everyone brings out their antique fire trucks for fire-department fundraisers and other events.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect other firefighting memorabilia?
Croucher: Yes. I used to have a business called the Fire Mark. We’d go to fireman’s musters all over California, and I ended up with a huge collection of fire department shoulder patches. I also have a collection of fire helmets and a lot of fire apparatus memorabilia—photographs, slides, magazines. I’ve also collected stuff to do with fire apparatus, which is a general term for fire vehicles, for the fire museum we’re trying to build here.
Collectors Weekly: How did the museum project get started?
Croucher: The El Toro Marine base in Irvine closed in 1999. It had been there since the ’40s. Some time later, a group got together and decided it would be a great place for a fire museum. For several years there was an argument over whether it should be a commercial airport or a park, but it eventually became the Orange County Great Park. It’s actually run by the city of Irvine. We’re trying to acquire one of the old hangars for the museum.
In 2003 we put together a group called the California Fire Museum of Orange County. We have a board of directors and 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. We don’t have a building yet, but we have several storage facilities full of donated stuff. We probably have 10 pieces of fire apparatus and a great amount of fire collectibles, memorabilia, history, and other stuff that’s going in the museum.
It’s also going to be a safety education center where children can come and learn about fire prevention and safety, pool safety, electrical hazards—all the things related to safety in the home. We’re working with the Great Park now. We’re going through a feasibility study to find a location where we can either build a building or get an existing building for the museum. It will probably be at least a year before anything opens.
Some of the fire departments, like Huntington Beach, go back to the early 1900s. But there’s no fire museum in Orange County or any other place that has preserved that history. They have fire museums in L.A., San Diego, and other places, but nothing that goes back that far.
Fire departments have been disbanded in some cities, like Westminster. So they contract with the Orange County Fire Department for their fire protection. Several cities over the years have contracted with Orange County. Hopefully, we’ll be able to save some of their history.
We hope to include all cities in Orange County. We’ll welcome anybody. It’s going to be called the California Fire Museum, although it’s really going to focus on Orange County because that’s where we’ll be. The California name allows us to attract more corporate sponsors and things like that.
Collectors Weekly: How far back does the memorabilia go?
Croucher: The Orange County Fire Department started with the California Department of Forestry in 1939. None of the unincorporated areas of the county had fire departments. Back then it was just city fire departments, farmers, and orange growers. They had no fire protection of their own. So they went to the state and requested protection. The Orange County Fire Department with the CDF, California Department of Forestry, started in the mid ’30s. From there, it developed into the Orange County Fire Department.
“The engineer who drives the apparatus might wear a yellow hat with a black stripe.”
I’ve got a file cabinet full of Orange County Fire history in my garage. When they became the Orange County Fire Department, a lot of CDF stuff was thrown out. But luckily, people said, “That’s our history,” and actually dug it out of the dumpster. I have the only records of the department that go back to the beginning. That’s the kind of thing we want to put in the fire museum.
There were a lot of volunteer fire departments back then. We have some of their history in photographs and written material. We can put it in the archives so people can learn about the history of the early fire departments in Orange County.
Collectors Weekly: Do people send you memorabilia?
Croucher: Yes. The local “Orange County Register” newspaper has run several articles. To keep up with the times, you have to be on the Web. We have Twitter, a blog, Facebook. We have a website to get the information out. People hear about it and say, “I don’t know what to do with this stuff. Would you be interested in it for the museum?” The answer is usually “yes.”
We’ve got fire helmets from around Orange County, patches, and information from cities that no longer exist. People have given us uniforms, printed material, annual reports from fire departments, magazine articles. We have old Orange County fire apparatus. You name it we have it, memorabilia-wise.
Collectors Weekly: What are some your favorite pieces of memorabilia?
Croucher: We have a lot of fire hose nozzles. They could be quite ornate and very heavy. The nozzles today are made of lightweight materials. The breathing apparatus they wear on the back is now made of fiberglass. In the old days they wore heavy steel bottles. I like some of the old radio equipment. It’s much larger than what they use now. We’ve acquired a lot of that.
They used to use handheld radios; now they’ve got little walkie-talkies. The first portable radios were like carrying a small suitcase. They were very heavy, had a big handle, and a whip antenna. They could only use a couple of radio frequencies back then; now they use multiple frequencies. It’s almost gone from not enough to too many because it can be a problem trying to coordinate everything in a big fire.
Collectors Weekly: Were there a lot of different helmet types and colors?
Croucher: The colors usually have to do with rank. When you start in the fire service, you start out as a firefighter and wear a yellow helmet. The captain might wear a red helmet, and the chief or assistant chief would wear a white one.
The engineer who drives the apparatus might wear a yellow hat with a black stripe. Different departments, especially when you move across the United States, do different things with colors. In the old days, firemen’s helmets were basically black. The chief’s hat was white. There was no difference except for a stripe or some other identifying mark. A number on the front of the helmet would usually refer to the fire company or the station.
The old leather helmets are the most collectible things today, especially those made by Cairns. They were used a lot in New York and San Francisco. They wanted something a little lighter—a leather helmet can get pretty heavy—so they came up with the plastic alloy ones.
The helmet shapes have changed over the years, from the traditional long bill that goes down over the neck to a shorter bill. All the manufacturers have tried to reinvent the wheel by coming up with the greatest fire helmet ever. But these things didn’t always catch on because it’s hard to fight tradition in the fire service.
Many manufacturers have come up with a lightweight alloy helmet that looks like leather. It’s made out of plastic, Bakelite, or a different kind of material. Leather helmets are very expensive.
Collectors Weekly: Besides Cairns, who are some of the other early helmet makers?
Croucher: MSA, which stood for Mine Safety Appliances, was very popular, especially on the West Coast. It made a lot of helmets for L.A. City, L.A. County, and Orange County. The firemen really liked MSA helmets because they were lightweight. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, dictates safety for firemen, including the standards for helmets. A lot of the MSAs didn’t meet the new standards, so they came up with different kinds of helmets. There’s an outfit in Riverside called Phenix Technology that makes a lot of fire helmets.
Collectors Weekly: Are any of the old companies still around?
Croucher: Yes. Cairns is one of the main ones. A lot of them have merged with other big companies to survive. You can even buy a Cairns leather helmet today. A lot of the smaller companies have made replicas of them. They don’t always meet the safety standards, but collectors buy them or museums use them for displays or parades.
Collectors Weekly: Did some companies produce firefighting equipment exclusively?
Croucher: Oh sure. Akron Brass in Indiana, for example, made hose appliances like nozzles, fittings, reducers, spanner wrenches, and other equipment. Some just made fire apparatus. Others made firefighting apparel like turnout coats, turnout pants, and the boots. There were also fire equipment vendors—you wouldn’t necessarily buy direct from the manufacturer.
Collectors Weekly: Are shields and shield holders considered part of the helmet?
Croucher: Well, there are face shields now that fasten to the sides of the helmet. They can be pushed up or pulled down over your face. Back in the old days, firemen were more rugged and wanted to be Mr. Macho by going without face shields. Many didn’t even wear breathing apparatus, but over the years they found that those guys didn’t last long so they made all of that equipment mandatory.
You can still get face shields on helmets, but now they’ve gone more to goggles, especially on the West Coast because of brush fires. The goggles offer a lot more protection from smoke than a face shield. A lot of fire departments have approved different types of goggles. They look like ski goggles and have an elastic strap that goes around your head or around the helmet. They cover your eyes completely so that when you’re fighting a brushfire, you don’t get ash in your eyes.
Collectors Weekly: What is a presentation helmet?
Croucher: An ornate helmet—maybe a leather helmet—that’s presented to either a retiring chief or as a special award to maybe the mayor of the city. It might not be something that actually could be worn in a fire.
A lot of the fire departments used to have what they called parade helmets. The fire department might have a parade on the 4th of July or certain days in town. They even had special equipment made just for parades, like a special parade outfit with a parade helmet and belt.
They were made of leather, shaped more like a top hat, and they might have the name of the fire company written in ornate lettering. They used to call fire departments “fire companies” back then because each volunteer company had its own colors and other things they’d wear in a parade. It was almost like a competition to see who could be the fanciest and best fire department in the parade.
Collectors Weekly: What was the significance of the designs on some of the equipment?
Croucher: It was basically just to fancy them up. A lot of the early firefighting equipment used hand pumpers that took maybe four or more guys on each side. They’d decorate the hand pumpers with gold leaf.
They might even have a fancy drawing of George Washington or some other honored person on the engine. They put a lot into the early stuff, but a lot of that was the parade stuff. They also decorated their fire engines. On the hood of an old fire truck, there might be a fancy insignia, logo, or painting. Some of them were very artistic.
They don’t have hood ornaments as much anymore because of the cost. The city pays for everything now, so they’re pretty plain. Back east or in the Midwest, where there are still a lot of volunteer fire departments, they pay for the apparatus themselves. They still might fix up the trucks with gold leaf drawings and other things. Out here, the truck mainly bears the city logo. It might say something like “Engine Company 3” in regular lettering.
The color of the fire apparatus is also important across the U.S. There are red fire trucks, white fire trucks, green fire trucks. There was a controversy years ago over what the best color was. In the old days, fire trucks were red. Later, studies were done to figure out what would be the most visible color at night because red can be hard to see. They came up with lime green, so a lot of departments went to that. But as years went by, they decided they didn’t like it and went back to traditional red.
There’s a story about the fire chief who pulled up to a stoplight in a lime green fire department car, and a guy tried to hop in because he thought it was a taxi. After that the chief said, “That’s it. We’re going back to red.”
Some departments still use lime green. In California, the Office of Emergency Services uses yellow for its trucks. It’s state-owned fire equipment that’s loaned out to local fire departments. If you go to different cities, the popular color is white or red. Yellow is not quite as popular as it used to be.
To make fire trucks more visible at night, they now have a reflective white stripe along the side, and they recently passed a law that all fire trucks have to have chevron striping on the back because cars were running into the back of fire trucks. The striping is black and yellow, and it’s in a V-shape on the back. You see it a lot on trains. They’ve used it in Europe for years.
Collectors Weekly: Is the word apparatus just used to describe fire trucks?
Croucher: It’s an overall name for fire equipment. There are fire engines, fire trucks, and rescue trucks. Each piece of equipment has a standardized name. In other words, an engine company or a fire engine is a pumper. It has the hose on it. On the side you’ll see a pump panel where they can hook the hose. If it’s a ladder truck, it’s referred to as a truck company. A fire truck could be a pumper, a truck company, a rescue, or something else. So we use apparatus as a general term.
In the fire service, when you say truck, you’re talking about a truck company, which is a ladder truck, a snorkel, or an articulating boom. So a truck company, engine company, or a rescue company all have particular features. A water tender is a big tanker truck that carries only water. You go back east, and it may be called a tanker. But in California a tanker is referred to as an air tanker. The planes that drop water on fires are called air tankers. When you say tanker, right away it means airplane.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the major early fire apparatus manufacturers?
Croucher: Some of the early ones are still known today. American LaFrance and Seagrave were early ones. Pirsch and Maxim made early fire trucks. Some are more regional, and others were used across the country. Maxim was a big company in Massachusetts.
Crown and Van Pelt were on the West Coast. There were a lot of smaller truck body manufacturers that might have made 10 or 20 fire trucks over their whole career. Pierce in Wisconsin made a lot of fire trucks. A lot of companies have merged over the years. E-One, Emergency One, started out in Florida and became very popular because they made aluminum bodies.
Collectors Weekly: How many different models of fire apparatus were made?
Croucher: Well, most of the big companies made fire engines, which are also known as pumpers. They made ladder trucks and rescue trucks, which carry a lot of rescue equipment because a pumper can’t carry much.
A lot of companies also made crash trucks for airports. That was a very specialized piece of equipment. A lot of them can’t even be driven on the streets because they’re so huge. Oshkosh in Wisconsin built all kinds of crash trucks. A lot of these companies built construction trucks, power company vehicles, and other things as well.
On the West Coast, some companies make nothing but brush trucks. They’re special four-wheel drive vehicles that sit very high so they can go off-road. A lot of the California departments have brush engines made strictly for fighting brushfires.
Collectors Weekly: Did Ford work with manufacturers?
Croucher: Some fire truck manufacturers would build a custom-body fire truck—they’d make the cab, the chassis, everything custom from the ground up—while others would use a commercial chassis from Ford, Chevy, or Dodge and then build a fire truck body on top of that. A lot of companies would do both—they’d build their own cabs.
Collectors Weekly: How does one go about collecting such a large piece of memorabilia?
Croucher: A lot of times, people will collect just one. It’s like being in a car club. You buy a fire truck, and you take it to all the different events. Some wealthier individuals might collect five or six fire trucks because they’ve got the money and a place to store them. Where to park a fire truck is a difficulty, of course. Not everyone has enough room. Even if they do, the city might not allow them to park a fire truck in their driveway. Probably 80 percent end up in RV storage because indoor storage can be very expensive.
Collectors Weekly: What does someone who collects vintage apparatus look for?
Croucher: A lot of it depends on what you want to collect. Some people want something smaller because of the storage problem. A lot of people look for a Model A or an older fire truck that’s small—just a small commercial chassis or something—because you could park it in your garage at home. A Crown, a Seagrave, or an American LaFrance is not going to fit in your garage.
A guy may have one for a while and then decide he’s too old for it, or it costs too much to insure or keep up, so he may put it up for sale. You can always find fire trucks for sale on eBay or Craigslist.
A lot of people might want to get a rig from their hometown or maybe from a fire department where they worked. Most departments sell their surplus fire equipment at auctions. Big companies in L.A. handle these auctions. So you can pick up a decent fire truck for around $3,000. If you want something that’s been restored and is in pristine condition, it would cost about $20,000.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect just apparatus parts as opposed to a whole vehicle?
Croucher: Some people will collect nameplates, for example. A Seagrave fire truck would have Seagrave on a chrome nameplate just like a Chevy would have a Chevy emblem. The fire truck nameplates are usually done in chrome and are about 12 inches wide. Each one has its own distinctive emblem. Seagrave, for example, is written out like a signature. Crown has a little crown on top of the word.
Some guys have huge collections of emblems from every kind of fire truck you can imagine. And there were a lot of manufacturers. Some people might collect ornate pump panel gauges, but generally, fire memorabilia collectors are not parts collectors. Sometimes you can buy fire truck parts from junkyards, but it’s usually really hard to buy parts for the pump or the motor if you own a fire truck.
That’s why most people that collect fire trucks belong to a club of some kind because they usually have a newsletter where people list things for sale.
Collectors Weekly: Are early hood ornaments collectible?
Croucher: The hood ornament would be like the nameplate, in terms of their collectability. Mack fire trucks had a bulldog mounted on the hood. On the older vehicles, the radiator cap was like a hood ornament. It was called a motometer. Each one would have its own insignia. There’d be a radiator cap and above it a round glass thing with a gauge in the middle that would tell the temperature. There wasn’t a lot of hood ornaments like you’d see on a car, because the radiator was always up front.
Collectors Weekly: How big is your model truck collection?
Croucher: The last time I counted, it was over 2,000. The room is filled, so I’m not interested in acquiring anything new unless it’s something unusual as far as fire apparatus. Having so much stuff in boxes was one of the things that spurred me to try to get the fire museum going. I’d love to display or donate my whole collection to the fire museum where people can see it. What good is it if nobody can see it except you?
The other day, a guy who collects fire department yearbooks called me. He’s probably in his 90s now, and he just donated his whole collection to our fire museum. He’s been working on that collection for years. I’ve known him for a long time, and I never thought he’d part with it. But there comes a time when you just go, “What’s going to happen to all of my stuff?” We encourage people to donate their collections to fire museums in their wills.
Collectors Weekly: Do you only collect model fire trucks?
Croucher: My collection started with little fire trucks. Then I got all kinds: bigger ones, wooden ones, glass ones, plastic ones, kinds that are built from kits, kinds that come already built. Some companies sell limited editions of collectible models. They might make 2,000 of a particular fire truck, a diecast 1/64th scale fire truck that’s an exact replica of one from New York City.
In my collection I also have chief’s cars, fire boats, fire planes, and other fire toys. Mainly I’ve tried to stick to fire trucks, but sometimes you’ll see something that’s neat. Some companies do replicas of fire stations. I don’t know if you remember the TV show “Emergency,” but the station they used for the filming was an L.A. County fire station in Carson. You can buy models of that fire station and others.
Collectors Weekly: What companies made the models?
Croucher: One of the biggest ones is Code 3 Collectibles. It’s an offshoot of the Funrise toy company, which started Code 3 Collectibles to make upscale replicas for adults. The Funrise fire trucks were probably 12 to 18 inches long and made of plastic. You could push a little button on the side, and the siren would go off and the lights would blink.
The pumpers, ladder trucks, or rescues for kids were more generic. It might look like a Seagrave or an American LaFrance, but it didn’t say that on it. For the adult market, they started producing replicas of actual fire trucks. They were very detailed and came in a display box and cost anywhere from $25 to $60 each.
Originally, it was all vintage stuff. But Code 3 Collectibles started making modern stuff. They didn’t do vintage. Different companies focused on different eras or equipment. Corgi, from England, is another big maker that’s been around for a long time.
There’s a lot of crossover with these companies that make model railroad stuff. They make fire trucks and a fire station for the train layouts. A lot of the stuff is available on eBay or through specialty magazines.
“The Fire Apparatus Journal” has pictures of all kinds of fire trucks from around the U.S., as well as ads for models. It’s not stuff that you could just go and find in a toy store.
There are swap meets and fire memorabilia trade shows that go on around the country usually in summer. People will be selling anything from fire helmets to nozzles to fire alarm boxes or toys.
Collectors Weekly: Did you usually look for something specific when you were collecting?
Croucher: When I first started, I was collecting the little Matchbox and the Hot Wheels trucks. They had a whole line of toy vehicles. So I looked for fire-related stuff. They put out a lot of variations. Matchbox would put out a fire truck, and then three years down the road, they’d put that same one out, but it might have bigger wheels. Maybe it would be painted a different color to make it more like a hot rod or something. Maybe one would be for an L.A. fire department or a New York one. There might be four different ones for each department with a different color and different department markings on it.
Collectors Weekly: What are your favorite models from your collection?
Croucher: I was at fireman’s show, and some people from Code 3 Collectibles were looking around. At the time, they only did replicas of newer fire trucks. So I asked them if they’d ever thought about doing a vintage model. They said they had, so I suggested they do a Crown. They’re made here in L.A., and I had all the drawings, the pictures, the blueprints. My garage is filled with the history of Crown coach because I’m the archivist for the club.
So some people from the company came to my garage and looked through the Crown stuff, and decided to do one. I was really proud they did a Crown, because there weren’t any at the time. They did the drawings for it in China, where it was manufactured. They sent me pictures and an actual mockup for approval before they went into mass production.
It’s very expensive because everything has to be diecast. They have to have a mold for each piece of the fire truck and the front and back. It’s very expensive to do a model and an exact replica diecast and in scale. They try to get their money’s worth when they build something. After the L.A. City Crown model they released in 2000 sold out, they used the same mold and changed the color and a few things and did another for L.A. County.
They also did some trucks for Hawaii, because they used a lot of Crowns there—L.A. was the closest place to get parts. Code 3 made one with a surfboard on the side because the Hawaii companies did surf rescues.
Some of the early stuff is very valuable now. Hubley made cast-iron toys, like an old steamer or an old Seagrave fire truck. Those became very collectible, as have some of TootsieToy’s fire trucks.
I mentioned Corgi, but there were a lot of toy companies from Germany, England, and Japan that made collectible stuff. One called Majorette made fire engines and other toy vehicles.
Dinky Toys were popular for a long time. They made a whole line of military and car toys. You’d go into a hobby shop, and they’d always have a display of Dinky Toys. They weren’t cheap because they were all metal.
Solido was a European company that was big for a while, but then fell by the wayside. AMT made plastic models. They had airplanes and ships. They had a pumper, a ladder truck, and a snorkel. Kit bashers were guys that would take a Kenworth cab and chassis and then put an AMT fire truck body on it. It was the same 1/24th scale, so they could take the body off of one, put it on the other, and create a new fire truck.
Collectors Weekly: Being the archivist for the Crown Club, have you come across any interesting facts or stories about the company?
Croucher: When Crown went out of business in the ’80s, we went down to the plant and said, “We’re the Crown Fire Coach Enthusiasts. When you close down, is there anything we can have?”
The last fire truck they were building was sitting there unfinished. We tried to get them to donate it, but they wouldn’t. Our club has the first one ever built, back in 1951. We wanted to get the last. We’ve got one of the last ones, but not the final one.
Every Crown had a serial number, a plate inside. The first Crown ever built was F1001, the second one F1002. So you could tell by the number when the truck was built.
They had files on every Crown ever built, and they were going to throw them out. But there was a guy there who knew we were trying to save the history of Crown Coach. So he told us if we could get a truck there in a half-hour, we could haul all the files away. I have all that stuff in my garage.
There’s some interesting stuff in those files. They sold four fire trucks to Kuwait at some point. During the war there, somebody sent us a picture of a burned up Crown fire truck.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a little bit about the shoulder patches?
Croucher: On the dress uniform, there’s usually a shoulder patch, often a chevron. Some are round, some square, but to fit on the shoulder, the majority of them are a half-circle across the top with a chevron at the bottom.
They’re usually embroidered and sewn on the uniform. Some are pretty fancy. On the half-curve across the top, it’ll have the name of the department, like Costa Mesa Fire. Usually in the middle, there’s some kind of a picture related to the city. Huntington Beach’s patch says “Huntington Beach” on the half-circle across the top, and “Fire” at the bottom. At the center there’s an illustration of the water and the sun setting. Other ones might have a Maltese cross in the middle, or maybe a state or city seal.
For example, a Placentia Fire Department patch is something special because they’ve disbanded. I have a patch from every disbanded department in Orange County. The Placentia one has a mountain in the back and an orange grove. A lot of the patches in Orange County had something to do with oranges. Orange County Fire’s patch shows Saddleback Mountain and a grove in the background with three large oranges in the foreground.
Collectors Weekly: How do you acquire patches like that?
Croucher: You usually have to know somebody within the department, or buy them off eBay. I cut the patches off my old Orange County uniforms. But some patches are hard to get because the departments control them. They don’t want people having them. They usually run maybe $5. So if a city doesn’t have a big budget, they don’t want to give them away.
Some firemen might trade them at a muster or some other gathering. Also, there are companies that reproduce and sell them for $5 to $8 a patch. Some of the bigger departments like New York City, Chicago, and Boston have a company patch in addition to a department. Some of those were very artistically done.
The Engine Company 8 in New York City near Coney Island has a city patch on one shoulder and on the other a company patch that says “Company No. 8.” They might have a skull and crossbones or something, or in the case of Coney Island, a roller coaster in the background.
Collectors Weekly: Have firefighters always worn patches?
Croucher: Yes, although they may not have been as popular as they are now. The patch might have been the company insignia and worn for parade dress rather than on their work uniform.
The actual city-type patches didn’t come along until the ’30s. L.A. City didn’t even have an on-duty uniform shoulder patch sanctioned by the department until maybe five years ago. Some departments might have worn an unofficial patch on a baseball cap.
Collectors Weekly: What are the differences between patches and badges?
Croucher: Fireman’s badges are metal and worn on the chest, just like a policeman’s badge. Some fire departments had the badge embroidered on the shirt because if you’re called to a fire or something, you just throw on your turnouts over your uniform shirt. In some cases that badge could get pretty uncomfortable.
So some departments went to embroidered badges. They would wear the actual badge on their dress uniform. In fact, most departments wear that metal badge on their uniform shirt. The badge will say “Orange County Fire Department” and at the bottom have a number and, say, “engineer,” “captain,” “battalion chief,” or “chief.” Some have a number. In the middle of the badge there will be what we call a scramble—a crossed ax, a helmet, or a ladder and a hydrant.
The badges were pretty fancy and usually made of chrome. Some of the highlights would be in gold-colored metal. Different departments had different shapes. A lot of them are shield-shaped. Usually there’s an eagle at the top of the badge. The California Department of Forestry had a bear because that’s the state animal.
Collectors Weekly: Do most collectors have some firefighting connection?
Croucher: A lot of firefighters collect stuff, but there are also people outside who just like firefighter memorabilia. That’s also true of people who own fire trucks. I’d say most of those people have never been firemen.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect memorabilia related to major fires?
Croucher: Yes. There are pictures, patches, and other objects related to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. People even collect photographs and information about the fires from 9/11. A lot of stuff has been produced and collected about that. Sometimes companies will manufacture and sell collectible stuff—postcards, photographs, maybe a special badge or a patch—depicting the big fire of 1906, or whatever.
Collectors Weekly: What about collectibles that aren’t directly from the fire stations?
Croucher: Some people collect shot glasses that might have been made for a department’s anniversary or other event. Avon had an aftershave bottle in the shape of an American LaFrance engine, and maybe even a mug. Toy train sets also have models of actual fire departments.
Some companies sell nothing but fire memorabilia. You can buy decorative plates and flags. Some guys collect fire extinguishers. There are all kinds—gold, brass. People collect fire alarm equipment. On street corners they used to have a fire alarm box. You’d pull the alarm, and the fire department would come.
There were a lot of false alarms. Kids used to like to pull the alarm box levers and run. In fact, companies even tried to come up with a way to lock whoever pulled the alarm inside the box, which would’ve been like a phone booth, until the fire department got there. There were a lot of accidents related to those false alarms.
People also collect the red lights off fire trucks. They usually start with just a flashing red light, and then they get into the rotating beacons. After that, they start collecting the big light bars that go across the whole truck, with lights flashing in different directions.
Collectors Weekly: If someone is interested in collecting firefighting memorabilia, how could they learn more about it?
Croucher: A Google search is the best thing to do. There used to be a company back east called Roberts that sold anything to do with collecting—shirts, hats, badges, patches, plates, flags, kids’ uniforms, and boots. It was a catalog-order company. Most of those types of companies have gone to the Web.
There are also firefighting clubs all over the United States. Different groups form chapters. Fire museums have groups they deal with. There’s one I belong to called the Fire Museum Network. It lists all the fire museums in the United States. They get together once a year to discuss their collections and all that kind of stuff.