From the mid-1800s to the present, untold numbers of firefighter badges have been produced, mostly in German silver (a copper alloy made with nickel and zinc) and brass. Shapes have ranged from simple ovals and thumbnails to more elaborate shields and Maltese crosses, which are symbols of protection for those who see it and courage for those who wear it. As with fire helmets, presentation pieces are the most highly sought by collectors of firefighting memorabilia, since their shapes were often custom made rather than taken from stock designs, their surfaces were chased or engraved by hand rather than stamped, and their materials sometimes included sterling silver and even solid gold.
In the United States, Blackinton Badges of Massachusetts has been producing badges for fire and police departments since 1852. Its stock badges, many of which are crowned by eagles, featured blank bands and ribbons where the name of town, city, county, or state could be added. Devices on these badges included helmets, ladders, sections of hose, fire hooks, and horns or speaking trumpets, which were used by early firefighters to communicate over the din of roaring flames. Other badges known as fire-lines badges were issued to newspaper reporters during fires, giving them limited access to conflagrations—many fire-lines badges read “No Admittance To Buildings” to keep reporters out of harm’s way.
Since 9/11, particular attention has been paid to the New York Fire Department, which lost 343 of its members in the attacks on the World Trade Center. The history of that city’s storied fire department can be told in its badges, which were standardized as a “pinched” shield shape in 1855. Other early badges were simply round, although by 1860, square badges for ladder companies were added. Pentagon-shaped badges resembling the five-sided nuts on the tops of fire hydrants were introduced in 1884 and used through 1937.
Following the pentagon badges were the iconic sunray Maltese badges worn by officers such as lieutenants, captains, and battalion chiefs. Topped by an eagle with outspread, sheltering wings, the badges featured die-cut red-enamel rings on their obverse. Also of interest to collectors are the badges issued during the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, the latter of which was staffed entirely by NYFD retirees, who were managed by Pinkerton’s International Detective Agency.