- Historic Sites
The people who stand ready to trade their lives for ours are part of a tradition that goes back 400 years
November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
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Less celebrated are controversies that also have their roots in the history and traditions of the fire service. The American firehouse has been an outpost of masculinity like few others in contemporary life. Long after women police officers, soldiers, and sportswriters have become commonplace, women firefighters remain a rarity. New York offers the most explicit example, with no more than 30 women among its more than 11,000 firefighters. It is no coincidence that one of the many books celebrating firefighters after September 11 used the word Brotherhood in the title. Similarly, fire departments remain overwhelmingly white even in cities that are majority-minority, or close to it. The Fire Department of New York is 90 percent white; the departments of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago between 70 and 75 percent white. Those statistics obviously indicate that fire departments have been slow to accept African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians. They also are reminders of the American fire service’s guildlike traditions, which may be out of favor in the twenty-first century but nevertheless offer the service a cohesion and sense of family crucial in times of peril and tragedy. Firefighters often have a combat soldier’s view of the larger world (and of their superiors). They trust each other, and only each other. And they take dim view of those they consider outsiders.
The public, however, seems willing to grant the fire service a pass on its struggles with workplace diversity. And while the outpouring of affection for the nation’s fire departments after September 11 may have marked a change in cultural priorities—suddenly the fame and achievements of athletes and movie stars seemed shallow and trivial—it was not the first time America so publicly embraced its firefighters. More than a century and a half ago a fictional volunteer firefighter from New York named Old Mose took the nation’s stages by storm. He was the central character in a play called
A Glance at New York , and both the character and the play were so popular around the country that a series of sequels—called, inevitably, Mosaics —followed. Old Mose was a giant who drank beer from 50-gallon kegs that dangled from his belt, and whose personal consumption of oysters and beef was so prodigious that the rest of New York had to do without when he was on a binge. Historians have described Old Mose, a superhero who rescued women and children from burning buildings, as urban America’s answer to Paul Bunyan. He was a Bowery b’hoy, a brawling character born of the new America taking shape in the nation’s cities. The b’hoys had a “rolling gait” and “surly manner,” wrote one historian, adding that they usually wore a “shiny stovepipe hat tipped over the forehead, soap-locks plastered flat … against the temple.” And, like many of America’s volunteer firefighters—including an ambitious young man in New York named Bill Tweed—Old Mose wore a bright red shirt and loud suspenders. The character of Old Mose was based on the exploits of a real-life New York firefighter, an Irish-American printer named Moses Humphreys, who was famous not only for his bravery but for the quick work his fists made of competing fire companies.
By the time Old Mose became a pop culture icon in 1848, America’s volunteer firefighters had established themselves as local heroes, capturing the public’s imagination with their brawny masculinity and larger-than-life escapades. Prints and illustrations from the middle of the nineteenth century depict them as dashing, gallant, and kindly urban knights who were both courageous and chivalrous, who asked for and received no pay for their services to the community. They also were the bane of many a politician and law-enforcement officer, for they took pride in their skepticism and sometimes outright defiance of civilian authority, and they seemed to enjoy fighting one another in streets as much as they did fighting fires.
The raucous firefighters portrayed in the Martin Scorsese film
Gangs of New York were very much a part of the Jacksonian tradition, a time when, as one of Andrew Jackson’s critics sniffed, it seemed as if anybody could become President. Or a fire chief, for that matter. Firefighting had been a gentleman’s vocation in the early years of the Republic, and volunteer fire companies in cities like Philadelphia actually functioned like private clubs. By the 1840s, however, urban companies were drawing from skilled craftsmen and laborers who insisted on electing their own officers, including, in some cities, the fire chief and fire commissioners. These rough-and-tumble volunteers horrified the gentry, sometimes with good reason. While the volunteers were brave, they were also undisciplined and often seemed more interested in exacting revenge on a rival company than in actually putting out fires.