Fires, Fights and Benjamin Franklin: Philadelphia’s Volunteer Firemen, Part Two


 

By 1752, there were already eight active fire companies in Philadelphia. That same year, Franklin built on his own achievement by helping to found the Philadelphia Contributionship, the oldest fire insurance company in America. Interestingly, though Franklin modeled his creations after their English counterparts, the American system was fundamentally different. In England, fire brigades were founded and administered by insurance companies, whose properties they protected exclusively. In America, the sequence was reversed. Though Franklin´s Contributionship and the companies that sprung up soon after followed the English practice of issuing their policy holders “fire marks” to display on their homes – many of which are still visible – Philadelphia´s fire companies would respond to any fire in their area, regardless of who insured the premises or if they were insured at all. Whether they responded more zealously to fires at buildings insured by their affiliated insurance companies – which were known to reward the firemen for saving as much of the property as they could – remains an open question.

Yet the atmosphere of selflessness and civic duty was charged with rivalry from the start. No sooner had Franklin´s Union established itself as a positive, respected force in the community than his rival Andrew Bradford, whose American Mercury competed with Franklin´s Gazette and whose violent dislike of his competitor was well known, founded his own fire company, Fellowship, in 1738. Rivalries between fire companies became especially destructive as Philadelphia´s unparalleled municipal water system ushered out the bucket-fed fire engine and ushered in the age of hose. The new equipment took some getting used to – one company records an unfortunate incident where a newly bought hose rotted after being stored in a barrel of dill pickles. But as pressurized fire plugs spread and fire brigades founded corresponding hose companies, things took an unfortunate turn. .


 

Once attached to a fire plug, a hose company could prevent rival companies from sharing the honor of fighting the fire. Wild races to be the first to connect to the plug – and violent fights to capture or recapture them – naturally ensued. Feuds between companies, as described in the song quoted above, were brutal and sometimes deadly, involving shootouts and, ironically, false alarms and acts of arson. By the mid-19th century, it was widely held that the volunteers were “a reproach to the city.” An entire melodramatic novel, “Jerry Pratt´s Progress or Adventures in the Hose House”, chronicled how a fresh-faced young country boy lost his morals – and, in a fight between hose companies, his life – after becoming a volunteer fireman. .

Though they remained political powerhouses, reportedly milking the city budget for unnecessary equipment and salaries to a shocking extent, the social makeup of the volunteer companies changed dramatically since the days of Franklin and Washington. Once made up of the city´s elite and professional classes, the companies came to be synonymous with the bare-knuckle politicians of Philadelphia´s infamous political machines. Despite a burst of renewed confidence in the volunteer companies during the Civil War, during which many volunteers gave their lives on the battlefield, the city finally voted to disband the volunteer companies and established a professional municipal department in 1871.

“Here´s health to Benjamin Franklin
And all who revere the name:
To the members of the Franklin Hose
I do allude the same”

(“The Franklin Hose Song,” c. 1850)

References:

  • Johnson, Harry M. &quote;The History of British and American Fire Marks.” The Journal of Risk and Insurance, Vol. 39, No. 3. (September, 1972), pp. 405-418.
  • Neilly, Andrew H. The Violent Volunteers: A History of the Volunteer Fire Department of Philadelphia, 1736-1871. University Microfilms, Inc. Ann Arbor, 1959.
  • The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Franklin & Fires: His interest therein and his effort to Protect the Citizens of Philadelphia from Devastation., J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia 1906.
  • Wainwright, Nicholas B. A Philadelphia Story, 1752-1952: The Philadelphia Contributionship., Wm. F. Fell Co. Philadelphia, 1952.
  • Wainwright, Nicholas B. “Philadelphia’s Eighteenth-Century Fire Insurance Companies” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.,New Ser., Vol. 43, No. 1. (1953), pp. 247-252.
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