The New Nostalgia… Many Happy Returns

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This was partly because in every American community volunteer fire companies were a lively and important part of the social and political scene. In cities like New York, Chicago, or Baltimore they played much the same role that fraternities do on college campuses. You had to be invited to join; there was a prestige hierarchy depending on the social and business background of the member’s of a particular company; and once you were “in,” you loyally maintained that yours was by all odds the best outfit in the city. Its superiority had to be demonstrated whenever possible—by getting to a fire faster than any other company in your part of town, pumping water higher and quicker, rescuing more pretty ladies in daring feats of ladder acrobatics, and if necessary administering fistic correction to any company that too aggressively disputed the field. (Quite a few houses burned to the ground while rival companies engaged in all-out brawls at the scene of the conflagration.) You also had to have equipment that was stunningly attractive, both rich and gaudy in appearance.

The design of the old hand-pump engines offered obvious places for decorative panels—especially the housing of the pump itself—and local artists were called upon to paint appropriate pictures. The Tammany tiger, for instance, was once an emblem on the pumper of a New York company whose foreman was William M. “Boss” Tweed. Thomas Sully, the well-known artist, executed a portrait of Lafayette for the Lafayette Hose Company of Philadelphia in 1833. More often the painter was an amateur, and the motif more general, with a preponderance on the side of allegorical patriotism. Among other things this gave a chance for art that ordinarily would have been considered daring, since everyone knew that goddesses of liberty, equality, and other democratic abstractions had a natural penchant for careless décolletage.

The stirring examples of nineteenth-century fireengine panels displayed on the following pages are all from the collection of the Peale Museum, in Baltimore, and each was once the pride and delight of a volunteer company in that city. We present them here with thanks to the museum’s director, Mr. Wilbur H. Hunter, who had them cleaned and photographed, and who has supplied us with pertinent information.

The Editors