- 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
Firefighters around the country have taken on new responsibilities—and, with them, new dangers. Clubhouse and gang loyalties gave an added ferocity to rivalries between companies. A nineteenth-century history of New York’s volunteers is filled with admiring references to manly displays of fisticuffs between companies before, during, and after conflagrations. Philadelphia’s firefighters in the 1840s and early 1850s were notorious for settling their intramural disputes with, in the words of a contemporary observer, “pistols, knives, iron spanners and slung shot, whenever they met, whether at fires or in the streets.” A civic committee charged in 1853 that there was “scarcely a single case of riot brought before the court that has not its origin in the fire departments… .”
Even where riots were uncommon, disorderly behavior was not. In Nashville, authorities in the 1850s cracked down on firefighters who thought that battling a blaze required the assistance of liquids stronger than mere water. In Pittsburgh in 1842 firefighters took it upon themselves to identify and then protect thoroughly houses that served as brothels. A Pittsburgh firefighter, William G. Johnston, wrote that “a rowdy element managed to get a foothold” in the fire department, and those rowdies believed that “fighting was no small part of the duties of a fireman.”
So was electioneering. Volunteer firefighters became a potent political force in New York, Baltimore, St. Louis, and other cities, to the dismay of reformers and, increasingly, the emerging nativist movement, which noted that the volunteer firefighters were becoming Irish and Catholic through the 1850s. As the historian Amy Greenberg noted in her study of nineteenth-century volunteer fire departments,
Cause for Alarm , the first elected mayors of Baltimore and St. Louis were firefighters; so were several antebellum mayors of New York. In fact, when the New York Common Council fired a popular and decidedly independent fire chief, James Gulick, in the aftermath of the aptly named Great Fire of 1835—it burned 52 acres in the financial district and destroyed 700 businesses—the firefighters countered by nominating and then electing Gulick to the minor post of city register.
Firefighters were a natural voting bloc in the 1840s for the very reasons that firefighting remains one of the nation’s last guilds. Despite the violence between companies in the 1840s, firefighters were and still are intensely loyal to one another. They share dangers that no outsider can know. They were and still are quick to perceive disrespect or claim a collective grievance. Volunteer firefighters walked off away from their vocation in New York in 1836 and twice in Memphis, in 1858 and 1860, when they felt insufficiently appreciated. And, as firefighters proved in Baltimore, St. Louis, New York City, and elsewhere in the early days of the urban machine, they were happy to vote together when they felt slighted or their interests were at stake. The implications of this chip-on-the-shoulder insularity are being played out in firehouses throughout the country today, as women and minorities try to get a foothold in many professional departments.
Today’s firehouse culture, where firefighters literally live together and form bonds far stronger than in most civilian professions, has its roots in the intensely masculine, parochial, and raucous world of the Jacksonian volunteers. When cities began disbanding their volunteer departments before the Civil War and replacing them with professionals, the days of riot and rowdy behavior were over, but the culture was passed on—generally for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Professional firefighting in the cities of the late nineteenth century was something like indentured servitude. Firefighters were on duty all the time. They lived in their assigned firehouse 24 hours a day, save for three meal breaks, when they were allowed to return home for an hour or so. In some cities, chief officers lived with their families in their assigned firehouse. Days off were rare, perhaps one or two a month.
Still, the job was coveted, in part because professional firefighting retained the glamour and prestige it had when the work was performed by volunteers, in part because firefighting became, albeit slowly, a gateway job into the middle class. It was dangerous work, but with the coming of civil service reform in the 1880s, it also was secure work. Firefighters didn’t lose their jobs in hard times. City hall never went out of business.
Understandably, then, immigrants and the children of immigrants in the roiling cities of late nineteenth-century America coveted firefighting jobs. While immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and Scandinavia show up on the rosters of fire departments in the 1880s and 1890s, no group became more identified with fire service than the Irish. Like many other immigrants, the Irish craved economic security, having fled that most insecure of worlds—tenant farming—in the old country. By the time cities across the country began forming professional departments, the Irish already were a powerful voting bloc.