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Firefighting in 1900

Updated: Jun 25, 2022

Firefighting in 1900 was a very different job than it is today. The basic mission was the same as today. That is to save lives and property from fire. However, the technological advancements and social progress that have changed our society over the past century also have transformed the job of firefighting. Despite all this change, the original and greatest weapon in the war on fire is the firefighter. Without the courage and determination of firefighters even the most modern fire engine cannot extinguish a lick of fire.


America's first firefighters were members of the community at large, who formed improvised bucket brigades when a fire broke out in their community. Later civic-minded men formed volunteer fire companies in their communities starting in the mid-1700s.


Volunteer fire companies grew in number as well as political power and influence through the 18th and 19th Centuries. The firemen, as they then were called, were members of all-boys clubs. They used hand-drawn fire apparatus. Their hand engines used manual power to pump water to extinguish the flames. This required large numbers of volunteers to haul to a fire and then to operate.


Early Paid Firefighters

The introduction of steam fire engines for fire firefighting allowed the organization of America's first paid or career fire departments in the 1860s. Paid fire departments with steam fire engines required fewer firemen than volunteer companies with hand pumpers. Still, the individual firefighter remained the essential element in fire protection. Without firefighters who were willing to risk their lives and endure the hardships of the job, all the firefighting equipment and new technology of any age would not stop a single fire or save a single life.


Firefighting has never been an easy or safe job. But it seems that there has never been a shortage of men, and now women too, who are willing to step forward and risk their lives to protect their communities from fire. Professional firefighting has never been a lucrative career. However, a century ago, for many immigrants and working-class poor, a career as a firefighter provided a path to a middle-class life and the realization of the American dream.


Although the mission of firefighters is the same today as it was a century ago, the job was very different. A century ago, those men fortunate enough to become paid firemen could expect to earn between $800 and $1000 per year. Engineers and drivers earned more the rank-and-file firefighters. Officers earned correspondingly more as they advanced in rank. Fire chiefs generally earned about three or four times as much as firefighters.


For these wages, firefighters worked in a continuous duty system. This meant that most firefighters worked about 120 hours or more per week and virtually lived at the firehouse. The conditions in which firefighters lived at the firehouse were very unlike those of a modern firehouse. Basically, the fire horses lived better than the firemen. The horses each had their own stall and had their meals brought to them. Firemen slept in a dormitory and were responsible for their own meals.


Paid firefighters a century ago answered far less alarms than firefighters of today. They did not answer emergency medical calls or many of the types of alarms with which modern firefighters stay very busy. For example, in 1910 the entire Boston Fire Department answered 4063 alarms while protecting a population of around 670,000 residents. A century later in 2010, while serving a population of about 620,000, the department responded to 68,859 incidents. Of these, 4082 were structure fires. Today Boston’s busiest engine company, Engine 37, responded to around 3900 alarms each year. Engine 37 is not the busiest fire company in New England. That distinction goes to Brockton’s Squad A, which answers around 5000 alarms each year.


Dangers of the Job

Beyond the terribly long hours and less than ideal conditions at the firehouse, a century ago firefighter, career and volunteer alike, frequently paid a terrible price fighting fires. No comprehensive statistics exist regarding the rate of injury for firefighters of this period. But abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of injury was far greater than today's rate.


One of the chief causes of injury to firefighters was the lack of protective equipment. Firefighters had minimal protective equipment that usually consisted of their iconic fire helmet and a rubber or canvas coat and maybe rubber boots. None of this provided any protection from the heat and really provided only token protection from anything else.


Breathing apparatus was virtually non-existent, but firefighters still pressed interior attacks. This is how firefighters earned the nickname of "smoke-eaters." It often was said that the severity of a fire could be measured by the number of firefighters lying on the sidewalk overcome by smoke. Incidentally, these firefighters overcome by smoke often were not considered to be "injured" unless they had to go to the hospital, which was not that frequent.


The consequences of this environment were staggering. A 1913 study of the FDNY found that of every 100 men who joined the Department only 50 were left after 12 years. Only one in ten made it to 20 years of service. Firefighters had 18 times the rate of disability retirements as members of the police department. Firefighters also had very high rates of tuberculosis, kidney disease and pneumonia. However, despite this evidence, the FDNY did not fully implement a two-platoon system until October 1920.


Because of the long hours and many dangers of firefighting, being married to a firefighter was not easy then, nor is it now. Chicago Chief Fire Marshall James Horan said in 1906 that firefighters needed to marry women who would not worry about them because a worrying wife would be a distraction to a firefighter. "A man with this sort of a wife will not take even reasonable chances at a fire for fear of injuring himself. They do fear the injury so much themselves, but they dislike contemplating its effects on their wives. The woman who can sleep...when she knows her husband is on his way to a fire and that he may be buried under a falling wall is the sort that make the ideal wives for firemen." Ironically, Horan and 20 of his firefighters were killed on December 22, 1910, when they were crushed by a falling wall at the Chicago Stockyard Fire. Horan left behind a widow and four children.


Line of Duty Deaths

Records of line of duty deaths for prior to 1981 are incomplete. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has embarked on the mission of compiling a database of American firefighter deaths back to 1735. The Foundation is unable to state with certainty the number of firefighter deaths a century ago. However, a survey done by Insurance Engineering magazine in 1911 determined that there were 73 firefighter line of duty deaths in 1910. Although the total is similar to recent annual rate of line of duty deaths, it reflects a fatality rate that is triple the rate of today.


Despite the lack of comprehensive records of line of duty deaths for the turn of the century, records for America's largest cities are quite extensive and offer a stark glimpse of the price firefighters paid to protect America's largest cities. The fatality rates between 1875 and 1900 for America’s largest cities varied greatly. New York City had 66 firefighter fatalities. Chicago had 73. Philadelphia had 52. When adjusted for differences in populations, New York actually was the safest large city for firefighters.


Boston was the fifth largest city with a population of 561,000 and had 27 firefighter fatalities between 1875 and 1900 making it statistically twice as dangerous as New York. Boston’s fatality rate paled in comparison to St. Louis, the nation’s fourth largest city. St. Louis had about the same population as Boston, but St. Louis had a staggering 106 firefighter fatalities between 1875 and 1900.


The rates of firefighter fatalities increased in the new century. As cities and buildings grew ever larger the challenges and dangers faced by firefighters increased significantly. Collapses of walls and buildings were the leading killers of firefighters. Many collapses killed multiple firefighters. Among the worse if these was the 1898 Merrimack Street in Boston in which six firefighters were killed. These men included a District Chief as well as the Captain and four hosemen from the same engine company.


Some men looked at firefighter’s deaths philosophically. For example, FDNY Chief Croker said "Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department, they face that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.”


Chief Croker's romantic and philosophical view of the line-of-duty deaths was not shared by everyone. In February 1898 when six Boston firefighters were killed in a collapse at the Merrimac Street Fire, The Firemen's Standard described their deaths starkly. The editors wrote that "The tragedy had no dramatic accompaniments; no sensational features - no element of the romantic- distinguished it. It came in the cold, hard, common-place routine of duty. Enveloped in smoke and darkness, concealed even from the sight of their nearby comrades, these men were swept from the earthy scene with a suddenness that was simply appalling."



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