Firefighters save lives with the help of countless tools—fire extinguishers, helmets, fire trucks, and hoses, to name but a few. Many of these objects, especially those from the 19th century, have become highly collectible.

One of the firefighter’s most basic tools is the fire extinguisher, which did not always resemble the familiar items that pervade schools and commercial buildings today. From about 1868 onward, fire extinguishers were basically pint- and quart-size glass grenades containing simple chemicals like saltwater, muriate of ammonia, bicarbonate of soda, and salt. Sealed with cement, they were hurled into fires where they would shatter upon impact, releasing the chemicals inside.

The grenades fell out of favor around 1903 and were eventually replaced by the more familiar pump-type brass and copper extinguishers made by companies like Elkhart. For obvious reasons, only unused grenades can be collected.

Badges are another class of firefighter memorabilia. The New York legislature essentially invented the badge in 1855 as a way of solving a common difficulty that firefighters faced—non-firefighters attempting to join the fire lines, often with chaotic results. The legislature asked the Common Council to design a badge in order to identify firefighters conspicuously. Other cities adopted the practice once it proved successful.

Although the badge began as a single design, other shapes and types appeared around 1860: a badge for a fire engine company, a badge for a fire hose company, and so on. These badges had numbers to designate both the company and the individual wearer. While fire departments still use firemen’s badges today, these other varieties are very rare and collectible today.

Also collectible are so-called presentation badges, which were given to a fireman as a mark of distinction—for promotion or retirement, for example. These badges were often engraved and made from gold or silver.

Badges weren’t the only firefighter memorabilia to be invented in New York City. Around 1740, Jacobus Turck invented the first fire hat. With the exception of a few aluminum helmets made in the late 19th century, fire hats were made of leather from their introduction until relatively recent times (though some helmets today are still leather). The most prominent helmet maker of the time was Henry Gratacap, who started producing helmets in 1836...

The standard helmet was composed of eight segments, known as “combs,” to give it strength and durability. The more combs a fire helmet had, the stronger and more expensive it was—and the rarer and more valuable it is today. Some helmets had as many as 164 combs.

Helmets also had a shield holder, which was originally made out of leather (later, brass). Gratacap’s helmets, for example, were known for their eagle shield holders. Other fire helmets had a fox, beaver, serpent, greyhound, lion, or fireman. The rooster shield holder, in particular, is exceedingly rare.

As with badges, some of the most sought after helmets are presentation helmets that commemorated a firefighter’s retirement or promotion. These hats often featured a commemorative metal plaque in addition to embossing.

Some firefighter collectibles are far larger than badges or helmets—actual fire trucks have become desirable antiques. The first automobile fire trucks were manufactured by the Radnor Fire Company of Pennsylvania in 1906. The main manufacturers included Waterous, Peter Pirsch and Sons, Snorkel, Emergency One, American LaFrance, and New Stutz Fire Engine Company.

Before automobile fire trucks, fire engines underwent a long evolution from hand pumpers to hand-pulled trucks to horse-drawn vehicles. The hand pumpers appeared in New York in the 1700s and were imported from England. These were used until the development of the steam pumper in the early 1800s, which allowed firefighters to draw a steadier stream of water. In the mid-1800s, horses pulled steam pumpers with running boards to the scene of the fire.

Over the years, fire trucks have gone through a variety of colors, from familiar red to yellow to lime green, which is one of the easiest colors to see at night. Most departments, however, have settled on the traditional red.

Those who collect fire trucks often have difficulty finding enough storage space for their collections, so more compact alternatives for many are model fire trucks and other firefighting toys. The first such toys were made in the 1880s out of cast iron. They often sported bright colors and even movable parts. Some depicted hand pumpers, while others were models of horse-drawn wagons.

In the 1920s and ’30s, cast iron toys gave way to ones made out of pressed steel and pot metal. During World War II, wood was more common, since the metal was needed for the war effort. Today, of course, plastic is king.

Interestingly, some of the model fire truck toys of the 1920s and ’30s anticipated the look of fire engines today—manufacturers often combined a horse-drawn wagon with a truck body, and the result feels somewhat familiar to modern eyes. The most successful manufacturers of these toys included Dent, Hubley, and Kenton. Some of their models were as long as two feet, while others were much smaller. Original trucks in good condition are quite valuable today, especially those in cast iron.

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    

Large Size Hubley Cast Iron Ahrens-fox Fire Truck No Reserve (dakotapaul) Cairns Leather Fire HelmetObsolete Badge City Of Sacramento Fire Dept. "fireman " Los Angeles MakerVintage Gold Fireman Badge Oakland Fire Department California Alameda CountyVintage Fireman's Helmet-early 20th Century-fire Fighter Hat-eagleCairns 880 Black Firefighter HelmetVintage Cairns Red Leather Fire Fireman's Helmet 5a N5a 6a N6a New YorkerCairns Leather N5a New Yorker HelmetCairns And Brother Leather New Yorker HelmetCairns 880 Traditional Fire HelmetDietz King Fire Department Kerosene Lantern Nickel PlatedFederal Q Siren Q2bBourke Fire Helmet Flip Down Eye Shields New Never Installed, With Hardware*very Rare & Early Randolph Mass. Fire Dept. Badge Hose #1*Antique Cairns & Brother Leather Fire Helmet New Hampshire ? Cairns & Bros Leather Fire Helmet Size 7 Excellent ConditionOld Fire Alarm BoxCairns N6a Sam HoustonVintage Fire Truck LightFederal Sign And Signal Corp. Beacon Ray Light - Model 17 C Revolving Modified Vintage Firemen's Helmet, Black Leather, Found In Old Estate, Must SeeVintage Fireman HelmetVtg Brades 313 Firemans Axe H98 England Fire Boarding Military Trench Axe 1953?Msa Gallet Supra F1s12 Firefighter Helmet Gold Faceshield,black Issue+nomex Vintage Mine Safety Msa Topgard Black "emergency 51" Style Fire Helmet HalloweenRare "bullet Shape" Siren Double Red Lights From Ambulance/fire Truck/rescue TrkVintage Federal Firefighter Truck SirenFederal 300 Control Head Microphone Fire Police Ambulance Vintage Pa Siren RadioFederal Signal Lightbar Red Dome Light Aero Dynic Vintage 4 Rotators Sae 2 W3 85Whelen Strobe Light, Deputy Model -red & Orange Rotating Strobe W/ Magnetic BaseVintage Smokey The Bear Poster Prevent Forest Fires, Extremely Rare!Obsolete C1900 P.f. Assn. Fort Lee,new Jersey Engine 1 Co.9 Fire Badge FiremanPhiladelphia Fire Dept. Firefighter Bullard Helmet1934 1939 New York State Fire Warden Button Badge Conservation Department,nyVintage Sterling "sirenlite" Fire Truck Siren W/ Light Hot Rod Bomber LowriderBritish Sterling Silver Fire Fighting Medal Enamelled Steam Fire Engine 1905Nice Chrome Fire Extinguisher Water And Air Pressure Only Mirror FinsishAntique Gamewell Fire Alarm Station Box Company Christmas CardFdny Cairns And Bro Helmet Front Shield Engine 251 Old Brooklyn Volunteer Firemans Association Fire Badge See Photos Cairns Traditional Fire Helmet Firefighter Helmet Antique Replica Blackinton Fdny Fire Lines The Sun Newspaper Badge Fd New YorkMsa Fire HelmetAntique Cast Iron Fire Insurance Tree Mark Plaque From Plymouth, Ma HomeC1889 Boys Dressed As Firemen W Horn Ladder Wagon Axe Lantern Etc. Stapleton, NyVintage Chrome Fire Fighter Display Axe HeadSeagrave Vintage Hood OrnamentRare Antique "red Star Model 303" Copper/brass Polished Fire Extinguisher-emptyVintage Sirenlite By Sterling Fire Alarm Company Rochester, NyVintage 1946 Smokey The Bear Burned Timber Vermont Forest Fire Sign PosterFriendship Fire Co.,carlisle,pa.,badge,1930's-40'sCairns Leather Fire HelmetDietz Beacon Light AmberTested Vintage 12v Firetruck Federal Sign & Signal Siren Rat Rod Car Truck Part Original 1970's Lafd Los Angeles Fire Department Yellow Helmet Emergency 1Vintage Copper Fire Extinguisher Chicago Racine Iron & Wire Works Racine, Wis.Vintage Bourke Fire Helmet Flip Down Eye ShieldsAntique Gamewell Fire Alarm Box ShellVintage Cairns & Brother Inc Clifton Nj Fireman’s Fire Chief Helmet Metal Trippe Light Antique Siren Light Firetruck Ambulance Light Works Great! 12 Volt.