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 late 1800s describes its product as “a cheap, simple, and durable fire extinguisher that will not freeze, and can be used by man, woman, or child.” L.F. Stillman promised that its tin extinguishers could protect “homes, churches, schools, factories, hotels, theaters, automobiles, motor boats, street cars, lumber yards, freight and storage depots.”

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 ...

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive

Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive

This incredibly comprehensive archive of LAFD ephemera and memorabilia is as good a history of 19th and 20th centur… [read review or visit site]

Fire Hydrant Collections

Fire Hydrant Collections

Don't let your dog near this site... hundreds of photos of fire hydrant collections from over 60 individual collect… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Red Comet Vintage Fire Extinguisher Glass Globe Grenade With Metal Cage HolderBadger's Fire Extinguisher Vodka Decanter Copper & Brass #1Antique Pyrene Brass Fire Extinguisher & Brackets Hand Pump Vintage Lot Of 3 Badger's Fire Extinguisher Vodka Decanter Copper & Brass #2B&o Railroad Vintage Buffalo Copper Brass Fire Extinguisher, B And O, EmptyRed Comet Fire Extinguisher Granade And Holder FilledVintage Monarch Fire Killer Extinguisher ..early 1900"s Look CoolVintage Copper And Brass "wilbur" Fire Extinguisher W/original Stamped BracketVintage Pyrene 1 1/2 Quart Hand Held Fire Extinguisher B-2 ; C-2Vintage Guardene Pyreno Fire Extinguisher Class A1 #a-364417 - HazVintage Copper Brass Quick Aid Sa 303 Fire Extinguisher LampVintage Pistol Grip Fire Extinguisher Kidde RareInternational Harvester Fire Extinguisher (brass)Pyrene Brass Fire Extinguisher Made In Canada EmptyVintage Brass General Quick Aid Model 95 Hd Fire Extinguisher W/ Bracket (empty)1920 General Fire Extinguisher Co Providence Ri Brass Air Gauge Vintage Badger's Fire Extinguisher #308651 - Ssa Water Fire Extinguisher 2.5 Gallon 2000Vintage Stop-fire Quart Brass Fire Extinguisher Antique Stop Fire Inc BrooklynVintage Marine White Ansul Dry Chemical Fire Extinguisher Rat Rod Hot RodVintage Antique Copper & Brass Fire Extinguisher W/hose & Metal Nozzle Empty Vintage Presto "c B" Brass Fire Extinguisher W/orig. Box & InstructionsVintage Glass Red Comet 6" (blue) Fire Grenade Extinguishers With Wall BrackettVintage Essanay Copper & Brass Fire ExtinguisherVintage Box Of (6) Red Comet ? Glass Grenade Fire Extinguishers Leather Box Vintage Pyrene Heavy Vehicle Fire Extinguisher With Bracket EmptyRed Comet Vintage Fire Extinguisher Glass Globe Grenade With Metal Cage HolderLoyal Fire Bucket Papeete Ice Bucket Leather Wood Lid Nice!!!Antique Fire ExtinguisherUnopened Hero Fire ExtinguisherD.b.smith Indian Backpack Fire Pump Extinguisher W/ NozzleVintage Pyrene Motorcycle Type Brass Fire Extinguisher 1940s Newark Nj Novelty Fire Extinguisher Style Cigarette Refillable Butane Cigarette LighterRed Comet Sales Kit/fire Extinguisher DemonstratorAntique Copper Fire ExtinguisherVintage Pyrene Water Type Extinguisher / Fire Extinguisher / ** Empty **Antique Pyrene Fire Extinguisher - One Gallon Air Pressure TypeVintage 1970 General Fire Extinguisher Corp. Model Ss-15b Stainless Chicago*antique* Galvanized Fire Extinguisher *2 Feet Tall Extends To 41"* Dalmatian Dog Fireman Christmas Ornament Firefighting Fire Extinguisher Mini Fire Extinguisher Shaped Refillable Butane Gas Cigarette Flame Lighter Vintage Elkhart Brass Mfg Co. / Stainless Steel Fire Extinguisher ** Empty **Vintage Military Hanging Fire Bucket Pail Round Bottom Firetruck Water Type Fire Extinguisher 2.5 Gallon Vintage 1975Antique Standard Brand Fire Extinguisher Miller/peerless Repurpose ((look))Red Comet Antique Fire Extinguisher Grenade And Holder VintageBuffalo Better Built Fire Extinguisher Model No. 94018 Brass Name PlateSolid Brass 6" Smooth Bore Firefighting Chemical Extinguisher Nozzle"special Heavy Duty" Vintage Brass Fire Extinguisher Top Water Cap Fire ExtinguisherRed Fire Extinguisher Shaped Refillable Butane Gas Cigarette Flame Lighter