Monday, January 8, 2018

Did Someone Yell Fire!

QUESTION: My father was a fireman for most of his life. During that time he acquired a modest collection of firehouse memorabilia. When he passed away last year, I became the keeper of the flame, so to speak. And while I appreciate the history of these items, I don’t really know much about them. What can you tell me about firehouse collectibles? What is the market like for them today and are they readily available should I wish to expand his collection.

ANSWER: Firehouse memorabilia is one of those very specialized areas of collectibles. Not everyone is into them. In fact, many of the collectors of these objects are or were firefighters and, therefore, have a nostalgic attachment to them. And while fire fighting today is very much high-tech, it wasn’t always that way. The days of throwing buckets of water on a fire are not that far long gone.

To understand what firehouse memorabilia collectors seek, and why, it’s helpful to know something about firefighting history. Man has been struggling to control fire ever since its discovery. In 24 B.C., the emperor Augustus Caesar established groups of watchmen to stand guard, watching for fires in the city of Rome. If and when one of them spotted a fire, he would alert the local residents who would work together to fight the blaze.

The regulation of building construction, as well as restrictions on the building of intentional fires, became an integral part of many future legal codes. Until the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, individuals were responsible for rebuilding anything damaged by fire, a responsibility shared with their neighbors. As a result of this shift in responsibility, insurance companies established fire brigades of their own, consisting of hired crews of firefighters.

American colonial cities relied on these fire brigades to protect their insured properties. Building owners prominently displayed fire marks, symbols of various insurance companies, on their buildings to indicate to firemen those buildings that fell within their realm of responsibility. Not only did firemen refuse to fight fires not covered by their sponsoring insurance companies, but they often hindered the progress of competing fire brigades.

While Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire brigade in 1736, it wasn’t until  April 1, 1853, the country's first full-time paid fire department was established in Cincinnati, Ohio. The introduction of the steam fire engine, which provided steam-powered pumping, coincided with this.

But what sparked the interest in firefighting collectibles. Mostly it’s a fascination with personal courage and pride in this special brotherhood.

Some firefighting collectibles are becoming scarce. Fire alarms are of particular interest. Prices for them have increased dramatically over the years. Alarms can sell for as much as $10,000. Other items collected include hand lanterns, engine lamps, uniforms, axes and hoses, fire marks, nozzles, apparatus adornments, as well as presentation items, such as trophies, pocket watches and plaques—the list is seemingly endless.

To collect firehouse memorabilia is not only to pay homage to the men who fought fires,  but also to appreciate the increasingly sophisticated tools they used. However, the collecting field isn’t limited to firefighting tools alone. It also includes non-firefighting memorabilia, as well.

The earliest American firefighting collectibles aren’t related to those who fought fires, but to those who alerted others of the imminent danger. People used rattles, resembling large wooden noisemakers, at the first sight of smoke or flames. Those  commonly used between 1658 and the early 1800s are less than a foot long and have a paddle-like rattle attached at a right angle to a round wooden hanger.

Collectors also seek leather buckets. Typically holding three gallons of water or sand, they’re generally made of cowhide stretched over wooden frames and were individually marked to ensure safe return to their owners following the fighting of a fire. It’s these identifying marks that make them particularly appealing to collectors.

Other collected items range from fire-fighters' hats and helmets to actual fire engines,  including steam pumps as well as red fire trucks. Collectors also seek certain badges and ceremonial items like trumpets. Ephemera collections often turn up firehouse-related articles, as well.

Because it’s getting more and more difficult to find good items, collectors are paying more for what they do find. Many have broadened their collections to include fire insurance memorabilia. And then, of course, there are the modern-day firehouse collectibles like caps and T-shirts.

As with any category of collectibles, collectors need to be wary of reproductions and fakes. The best advice is for you to limit your purchases to well-documented items from reputable sources.

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