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.