The earliest fire extinguishers were buckets. In New York City, for example, it was mandatory for homes to have a bucket hung near the exit. Once an alarm was sounded, neighbors would then toss their buckets into the street to assist firemen. Often made of leather for durability, these buckets were sometimes personalized with their owner’s name and address to help with identification following a fire. During the 1840s, rubber began to replace leather as improvements in vulcanization made them sturdier. In public buildings, metal buckets were more common, with rounded or pointed bottoms designed to increase their water capacity. Among firefighting collectors, original leather buckets with no signs of dry rot are the most desirable.
The first patent for a glass fire grenade was granted in 1863 to Alanson Crane, and the use of these extinguishers quickly spread throughout public and private buildings alike. Typically, these glass bottles were filled with a tetrachloride or salt mixture that would explode when thrown into a fire, ostensibly to quench the flames. Bottle shapes and colors varied widely, ranging from a half-pint to two-quart size, with pint and quart sizes being the most common. Most glass fire grenades were spherical, with a short bottle neck and a cement seal to prevent evaporation; they were wall-mounted using simple wire loops. Experts still debate whether these fire grenades actually worked or simply gave building owners a false sense of security.
Since the fire-extinguishing abilities of these early products were somewhat unpredictable, companies touted other virtues of their extinguishers. A Hayward catalogue from the la...
One of the best-known glass-grenade producers was the Harden Hand Fire Extinguisher Company of Chicago, whose bottles feature an embossed star or diamond pattern on the outside. Among the rarest glass grenades is Harden’s nested system, made with three glass sections connected with wire in amber, clear, and cobalt colors. Other companies like Hayward, Barnum, and Babcock also designed popular glass fire grenades in a range of attractive colors and ornamented exteriors.
By the late 1800s, a new grenade style resembling a light bulb was developed, which hung on a spring-loaded bracket. A special heat-sensitive link would melt under high temperatures, releasing a spring-loaded metal arm to break the bottle and disperse its contents. Other glass bottle extinguishers made by companies like Dri Gas and Larkin were crafted to hold a dry chemical compound which would be shaken onto a fire. This type was frequently mounted in automobiles. Also popular in the early 20th century was a simple tin tube filled with a dry chemical mixture, like sodium bicarbonate, to spread directly onto flames.
Around the same time, a new method of fire extinguishing was invented that relied on a mixture of soda and acid to quench a fire. Extinguishers using this mixture contained a soda solution in their primary compartment and acid in a smaller glass vial. When upturned, the glass portion would break into the central chamber, allowing the substances to mix and causing a pressurized chemical reaction. These extinguishers were primarily made from riveted copper until around 1942, when brass containers became standard. Production of soda and acid extinguishers ceased after 1969.
The first extinguishing contraption using a single action pump was created by the Pyrene Manufacturing Co. in 1905. Pump extinguishers used carbon tetrachloride as a reactionary agent to douse fires, which created a deadly form of phosgene gas, prompting the outlaw of such designs by the 1960s.
Chemical experiments during World War I led to the manufacture of the first carbon dioxide extinguishers. Using a similar mechanism as the soda and acid designs, foaming carbon dioxide pumps were sold as early as 1917. While stored pressure mechanisms using water mixtures had been in use since the 1940s, the first dry chemical extinguisher using stored pressure was created in 1954. These devices used the newly developed Halon 1301, a chemical which suppressed flames by depleting oxygen.
When buying old fire extinguishers, collectors must be aware that many chemical combinations left in these devices are toxic and should only be handled by an expert.
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I started collecting firefighting memorabilia in the 1960s around the time I became a volunteer fireman here in Orange County. My … [more]