Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City


Amy Greenberg reveals the meaning of this central institution by comparing the fire departments of Baltimore, St. Louis, and San Francisco from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Cause for Alarm presents a new vision of urban culture, one defined not by class but by gender. Volunteer firefighting united men in a shared masculine celebration of strength and bravery, skill and appearance. Greenberg assesses the legitimacy of accusations of violence and political corruption against the firemen in ...
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1998 Cloth First edition. Illustrated. New/Unused/Unmarked/Unread. Not a Remainder, Return, or Previously Owned. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 232 p. Contains: Illustrations. ... Audience: General/trade. NEW/UNUSED/UNMARKED/UNREAD from the Publisher. Not a Remainder, Return, or Previously Owned. U.S. Domestic Tracking/Confirmation Included. Will Ship International, APO/FPO/DPO, and Priority. All orders are packed carefully/securely, with packing materials for quality control, so your orders are received as described or better. *Gift? Please inquire on sending a personalized note or card, with your purchase, free of charge. * [Product Description: Though central to the social, political, and cultural life of the nineteenth-century city, the urban volunteer fire department has nevertheless been largely ignored by historians. Redressing this neglect, Amy Greenberg reveals the meaning of this central institution by comparing the fire departments of Baltimore, St. Louis, and San Francisco from the late eighteent Read more Show Less

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Amy Greenberg reveals the meaning of this central institution by comparing the fire departments of Baltimore, St. Louis, and San Francisco from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Cause for Alarm presents a new vision of urban culture, one defined not by class but by gender. Volunteer firefighting united men in a shared masculine celebration of strength and bravery, skill and appearance. Greenberg assesses the legitimacy of accusations of violence and political corruption against the firemen in each city, and places the municipalization of firefighting in the context of urban social change, new ideals of citizenship, the rapid spread of fire insurance, and new firefighting technologies.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691016481
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/1998
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 0.86 (d)

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Cause for Alarm

The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City

By Amy S. Greenberg


Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01648-1



MAY 3, 1851—San Francisco Laid in Ashes ...

More than three fourths of the city were nothing but smoldering ruins. Iron and zinc curled up like scorched leaves, and sent forth their brilliant flames of green, blue and yellow tints, mingling with the great red tongues of fire which flashed upwards from a thousand burning buildings. The hills were lighted up as if the sun was above the eastern mountain-tops, and trees, shrubs, herbage, and houses were as distinguishable in the bright light as at noon-day. Darkness hung over a large portion of the shipping where the broad and heavy smoke lay. People became paralyzed. Every few minutes the earth and air trembled, as great buildings were torn into fragments by explosions of gunpowder; and the air was filled with shattered timber, bricks and mortar. The multitude hung, as it were, upon the borders of this vast sea of flames Few comparatively knew, or could know, what were the dangers and exertions of those who were within the range of the stifling and scorching flames. In less than nine hours from the beginning, more than twenty squares existed only in memory and the ascending volumes of smoke and flames which covered the site of the city. But the saddest sight of all was the destruction of brave but bewildered men, who, finding themselves suddenly surrounded by fire, rushed staggering and uncertain from flame to flame, m hopeless efforts to escape, until, strangled and scorched, they writhed and fell in view of hundreds who were completely powerless to save them. What a sad spectacle it was to look upon, the blackened remains of poor humanity, as they lay where they were burned by the fire which had destroyed the city.

Currier and Ives, the leading producers of popular artistic prints in antebellum America, produced ten separate prints honoring the urban volunteer fireman in two separate series, the "Life of a Fireman," and the "American Fireman." The former, which illustrated the activities of the New York Volunteer Fire Department, was among the most popular of all their prints.

According to a twentieth-century art historian, "If Currier and Ives had issued only the six large folio lithographs which comprise 'The Life of a Fireman' Series, their reputation would have been fully established. These prints ... depict with great accuracy all the excitement and color of the New York volunteer fire department in its boisterous heyday."

Nathaniel Currier was himself a volunteer fireman in New York City in the 1850s, which partially explains his frequent choice of firemen as subjects for the firm's prints. Currier was also a staunch Abolitionist, however, and steadfastly refused to produce a "Life of the Abolitionist" series, despite the encouragement of his fellow activists. Had he thought that Abolitionism would sell prints, he most likely would have made such a series. The firm, self-proclaimed "Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures," was primarily concerned with the pecuniary aspects of the production of their art. The remarkable success of Currier and Ives prints, including those honoring firemen, was as much attributable to Currier's insight into the taste of the mid-nineteenth-century public as it was to the new printmaking and marketing techniques that enabled him to exploit that taste.

These are model firemen, respectable firemen. They are well built, neatly dressed, efficient, and openly admired by spectators in the background of the action. If a group of firemen is featured, it forms a highly coordinated unit. These firemen never rest, observers never heckle them, they never quarrel with firemen from other companies. They devote a great deal of time to saving people's lives rather than simply protecting property. In one print, The American Fireman: Prompt to the Rescue, a fireman carries an unconscious young woman, clad only in a light, delicate gown, away from the scene of a fire. In another print much acclaimed by the San Francisco Fireman's Journal in 1855 as "natural to life," "a fireman is seen emerging from one of the windows with an infant in his arms."

There is little that is "natural" about these representations. Yet the success of the prints has been widely attributed to their realism. "The hypnotic fascination of a fire is present in all the Currier and Ives Fire Prints, but fortunately for the historian they went beyond this obvious appeal to leave a true document of firefighting methods and the actual scenes with a veracity often lacking in other areas of their pictorial coverage." Artistic representation is a complex system of discourses, and, as John Tagg describes in The Burden of Representation, every representation belongs "to a distinct moment" owing its qualities to "particular conditions of production and its meaning to conventions and institutions." What discourses can we see operating in this "realistic" account of volunteer firefighting? If indeed the public loved the prints of Currier and Ives because their artwork offered a view of America that Americans found comfortably and happily familiar, then, fortunately for the historian, an examination of a print from "The American Fireman" series should reveal much about the vision of firemen held by Americans at the moment of that print's production.

The American Fireman, Facing the Enemy (fig. 1.1) was a print lithographed by Louis Maurier, one of Currier and Ives's principal artists, in 1858. In this typically idealized print, The Fireman is handsome, manly, and, despite his exertions, clean. His clothes are only slightly rumpled, and shirt and jacket are neatly buttoned. His expression is somewhat subdued and contented. A burned shell of a building in the background suggests that The Enemy, or fire, was extensive. It has been recently controlled, apparently by the exertions of this single man, the only figure in the print. The fire is reduced to a small flame, contained in the lower right-hand corner of the print, which the fireman physically dominates in his position atop a building.

This gentleman is clearly more than a particularly effective and fastidious public servant. In our "true document of firefighting methods," Maurier rendered the fireman in distinctly religious terms. His pose is similar to that of Napoleon, Lafayette, or Washington in heroic representation of the period, all of which borrow formal idioms of earlier religious icons. His aspect is similar to that of a standing St. George or other sainted warriors. The upright posture demanded by his heroic stance, complete with stiff back leg, is entirely unsuited to the activities of the working fireman. Although this fireman is encumbered by heavy hose, he bears his burden well. Like the iconographic saint, he also labors under the weight of specific formal elements that correspond to his ideal image.

Antebellum Americans wrote romantic histories, they flocked to melodramas, and they generally celebrated heroic individuals, but there is something particular about Maurier's heroic fireman. First of all, he is not an individual. Unnamed, he remains a representative fireman. Furthermore, the religious references in this representation go far beyond normal heroic conventions. Our fireman is slaying his dragon. He wears a bright shield on his helmet, rather larger in proportion to his hat than was the norm, and also sports another notable feature. Although the fire is contained in front of him, and is nearly totally extinguished, this fireman is surrounded by an aura, or halo of light, as if lit from behind. Perhaps instead he is lit from within. It would be difficult to interpret this glow as anything except a sort of inner fire, emanating from the fireman himself, traditional artistic representation of the status of the elect. This fireman has a halo.

Why would an unnamed, representative volunteer fireman deserve a halo? Perhaps because his foe is so serious, so deadly, so terribly frightening that it could only be compared to the devil. As a clergyman speaking to a group of firemen explained, "The efforts of the Fireman and the clergyman are closely allied; one fights the fire-fiend in this world, while the other looks after the spiked-tailed gentleman who attends to the heating arrangements in the next."

Only to a perception informed by the conventions of the fireman's tribute, or fireman's hagiography, could this be considered a realistic portrayal of firefighting activities. Here we see the volunteer fireman as religious icon. And here we see our first indication that the volunteer fireman was no mere volunteer.

The urban volunteer fire department was an institution invested with meaning. To businessmen and boosters, it augured a future either brilliant with possibility, or fated to decline. Other urban residents invested it with even greater significance. Contemporary descriptions of the departments reveal a relationship between community and volunteer fire department radically different from the respectful if generally negligent distance of twentieth-century city dwellers from their city services, or of the antebellum populace to other city services such as the police. Currier and Ives produced no print series in honor of urban policemen that Americans could hang in their drawing rooms. The relationship between city and volunteer fireman, as revealed in newspaper articles, political tracts, popular literature, and contemporary histories, was never neutral. Baltimore's volunteer firemen received lavish tribute through the 1830s. In the 1840s this began to change, and their popularity as expressed in newspaper coverage began a steady decline, culminating in the mid-1850s, when efforts to replace them with paid firefighters began in earnest. The relationship between firemen in St. Louis and their public followed a similar chronological trajectory. In San Francisco, the volunteer firemen and their firefighting were the subject of adulation through the mid-1850s, when reformers began to publicly condemn their organization. In all three of these departments, the firemen fell from favor within a surprisingly short period of time.

Clear, if not always rational, concerns dictated the disgrace and fall of the volunteer departments. A common acceleration, a fevered pitch, and frequent overreactions by both politicians and papers unified debates that otherwise differed in each city. The tone of the often one-sided debates over fire department politics and violence, discussed in chapters 3 and 4, appear at first glance hysterical. But when framed by the earlier reception of the volunteer departments, in the years in which the volunteers were in favor, a pattern emerges from these debates, and it becomes clear that the relationship between the antebellum city and volunteer fireman was never a rational one.

In Europe, over the Fire King, we have seen highly disciplined bodies of men achieve great triumphs: we have watched them at their work—cool, systematic, aye, and daring too—in short, in the steady calmness of doing their duty. But here, where the fireman's work is a labor of love how different! The dash and spirit, the enthusiasm displayed—each fireman's soul in arms, one common cause, one universal chivalric spirit that sees or will see no danger, animating all, worthy of being ranked with the highest displays of bravery, and ennobled far above all instances of courage displayed m human carnage furnished us in the annals of battles.

Journalism in the nineteenth century was wildly hyperbolic, but even by its own standards the acclamation tendered to volunteer firemen was remarkable in both its quantity and its terms. The tribute to the firemen of San Francisco, quoted above, was not occasioned by any particular display of universal chivalric spirit. It was not offered after a valiant effort at a fire. Newspapers across the country praised firemen on every possible occasion, or, as in this case, on no special occasion at all. They praised firemen in editorial, letter, and poem. A poem was composed for the Union Fire Company after a fire appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Sun. A short sample of the abominable if enthusiastic lyrics of this typical tribute to the urban firefighting force will suffice:

    To the Union Fire Company

    Hail gallant sons of fire!
    Hail salamanders brave!
    Who dare the destroying angel's ire.
    Nor dread the grave.
    If ye can save,
    The helpless from a doom so dire.

While the mythological salamander could withstand fire, the volunteer fireman, sadly, could not. The bravery of the fireman was regularly noted, and praised in the fireman's tribute. The fireman was like a soldier, fearless in battle. "As the soldier loves the ensanguined field and the havoc of the fight, so the fireman loves the battle of the raging flame, and the fierce conflict of the red fire king," an orator declared to the firemen of San Francisco. But although a military motif was a favored one in the discourse of the fireman, the fireman was inevitably judged the superior. As the Alta California professed, firemen were "ennobled far above all instances of courage displayed in human carnage." A poem in the San Francisco firemen's own newspaper noted that

    Their fame is not of battle field—
    of deadly, mortal strife—
    But higher, nobler for than this—
    'tis hope, 'tis human life!

The San Francisco Evening Bulletin agreed: "There is no instance in history of unrewarded, self-sacrificing effort—whether it be noted in military or civic chroniclers than that to which the journals of the day tender their faint ephemeral praise in mentioning the deeds of the Fire Department.... No soldier's triumph, even in defense of country, equals theirs, for theirs is not a victory stained with blood."

Because firemen were not tainted by the blood of human opponents, newspapers proclaimed their victory more noble than that of the soldier. This was a popular conclusion for both prose and poem.

    A war more glorious than the strife
    that ends in taking human life,
    And fills the warrior's grave;
    No! rather 'twine the chaplet now,
    Around the gallant Fireman's brow,
    Who risks his life to save.

But if any soldier were to equal the achievements of the volunteer fireman, certainly it would be the classical warrior. Firemen were frequently compared to classical warriors both directly and indirectly by writers who revered the warrior for his contribution to the life of the ancient polis. As Hannah Arendt wrote about the ancient predecessor to the nineteenth-century city, "to belong to the few 'equals' (homoioi) meant to be permitted to live among one's peers; but the public realm itself, the polis, was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements that he was the best of all (aien aristeuein)."

The fireman, like the classical warrior, was engaged in an agonal struggle. Yet the volunteer fireman also practiced what Alexis de Tocqueville identified in the 1830s as the "best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of men of our time," the principle of "self-interest Rightly Understood." "Americans," he wrote, "show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state."

To volunteer to fight fires was not only to distinguish oneself with unique deeds, but also to pledge allegiance to the growth of the city, and to express in the purest form possible one's community spirit and enlightened self-interest. While contemporary observers generally chose classical imagery to praise their volunteer firemen, they also acknowledged the particularly American aspects of their endeavor. As the Baltimore Sun commented on the occasion of one of the many firemen's parades in that city, the volunteer firemen offered "a scene eminently and exclusively American .. it leads the world as an exponent of practical energy and genuine ability."

In other words, the urban volunteer fire department offered men the fulfillment of a particular ideal of citizenship: the opportunity to volunteer their very lives in the service of the city, and the regular acknowledgment of their civic virtue. The comparison drawn by writers between firemen and classical heroes in this tribute literature was not simply a poetic convention but held real political significance to American city dwellers. As historians including Drew McCoy, Gordon Wood, and Philip Ethington have shown, Americans in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian period were schooled in romantic republicanism. They turned to ancient Athens and Rome for a model on which to construct society. Firemen, like classical warriors, both distinguished themselves in the public realm and enabled the contemporary polis to practice its republican liberalism, in Ethington's definition, "a political language which traced the welfare of civil society to the ethical conduct of those who governed," and maintained that there was a single universal good that would both transcend and enable personal gain. According to Ethington, this republican liberalism, modeled in part on the ancient polis, defined political culture in American cities in the antebellum period. "In our eyes," grateful Baltimoreans confessed to their fire department, "at each victory over the fiery vesta your chief becomes the Miltiades of another Marathon." Or as the elegant lines of another tribute to the firemen mused:

    Now mann'd are the brakes, and the elements fighting,
    Like Trojans and Grecians for Helen of Troy,
    Or Spartans defending the pass of Thermopylae,
    Or Bonaparte's stand at the bridge of Lodi1

    Hail! Noble, chivalrous, bold, darmg fireman,
    Who struggles to save, though enshrouded in flame,
    Who offers up life on philanthropy's altar!
    Your name is inscribed on the portals of fame.


Excerpted from Cause for Alarm by Amy S. Greenberg. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables, Figures, and Maps
Introduction: Beginning at the Wake 3
Ch. 1 Paying Tribute 18
Ch. 2 Manly Boys and Chaste Fire Engines: The Culture of the Volunteer Fire Department 41
Ch. 3 Fights/Fires: A Glance at Violent Firemen 80
Ch. 4 Smoke-Filled Rooms: Volunteer Firemen and Political Culture 109
Ch. 5 Insuring Protection: Fire Insurance and the Era of the Steam Engine 125
Ch. 6 Deluged and Disgraced 152
Conclusion: One Last Eulogy 163
App Occupational Scale Used for Quantitative Analysis 167
Notes 169
Bibliography 207
Index 223
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