Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950
Publication Year: 2003
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Preface and Acknowledgments
My father was a firefighter. I remember feeling pride when he visited my second grade class on fire prevention day. I remember telephoning and speaking to him at the engine house every night before I went to bed. I remember the “firestorm” of 1976 and the burn he received. ...
Introduction: The Problem of Fire
Shortly after 1 a.m. on August 10, 1887, clanging alarm bells roused the men of St. Louis’s Hook and Ladder Company No. 6, led by foreman Christian Hoell. Minutes earlier, a night watchman had pulled the handle on a fire alarm box, signaling that a building in the city’s commercial district had caught fire. ...
Part I. Smoke
1. Workshops of Democracy: The Invention of Volunteer Firefighting
Shortly before midnight on a tranquil May evening in 1849 the bells of docked steamboats and ringing of fire bells awoke St. Louis residents to the danger of fire. Hardly stirred by the commotion and grumbling about the late hour, residents slowly turned out to watch firefighters battle yet another steamboat fire along the city’s main artery, the Mississippi River. ...
2. The Business of Safety: The American Fire Insurance Industry, 1800–1850
Early in the nineteenth century, fire insurance companies established an approach to the problem of fire that was very different from the tactics and tools used by volunteer fire companies. Whereas firemen endangered their physical bodies in the performance of public service, fire underwriters imperiled financial assets in pursuit of profit. ...
Part II. Fire
3. Statistics, Maps, and Morals: Making Fire Risk Objective, 1850–1875
In April 1852, prominent Philadelphia lawyer Horace Binney excoriated the fire insurance industry at an odd moment. In the keynote address of a gala event celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the Philadelphia Contributionship for Loss from Fire, he censured fire underwriters for what he characterized as a haphazard approach to their business. ...
4. Muscle and Steam: Establishing Municipal Fire Departments, 1850–1875
In May 1855 over fifty thousand Philadelphians braved a torrential downpour to watch a contest between muscle and steam that symbolized the broader conflict over the provision of fire protection in the United States. Crowding the streets in front of Dr. Wadsworth’s Church, throngs gathered in windows and on rooftops along Arch and Tenth Streets. ...
Part III. Water
5. Disciplining the City: Everyday Practice and Mapping Risk, 1875–1900
Infected by the culture of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism and emboldened by its discovery of actuarial method, the fire insurance industry pursued a marketoriented solution to the problem of fire in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. With a few notable exceptions, most companies paid little heed to preventive measures until late in the century. ...
6. Becoming Heroes: A New Standard for Urban Fire Safety, 1875–1900
When Truck Company D arrived at St. Louis’s Southern Hotel in 1877, it found the building engulfed in flames. Above the pyre, almost a dozen people dangled from windows. The company hurriedly maneuvered its ladder truck along Fourth Street—impeded by streetcar tracks and blocked from the hotel’s upper reaches by porches. ...
Part IV. Paper
7. Consuming Safety: Fire Prevention and Fire Risk in the Twentieth Century
What had been unimaginable a decade earlier became a reality during the first decades of the twentieth century. The fire insurance industry, led by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, dramatically changed course and embraced fire prevention, which would lead to fundamental and rapid improvements in urban fire safety. ...
8. Eating Smoke: Rational Heroes in the Twentieth Century
When St. Louis firefighters arrived at the Simmons Hardware Company in the summer of 1911, no smoke or flames were visible from the street, but below ground in a basement vault a mixture of hay and excelsior sat smoldering. Firefighters entered the building looking for the blaze, and they discovered acrid smoke emanating from the basement, up elevator shafts. ...
Conclusion: Fighting Fire in Postwar America
By the 1920s, the insurance industry had established broad authority over matters of fire safety, and the Insurance Company of North America introduced a new icon of fire protection—the White Firemen, who in a broad advertising campaign promised to protect American society in a way no firefighter ever could. ...
Appendix 1: Firefighting by the Numbers
Appendix 2: Firefighting Careers
Essay on Sources
Page Count: 440
Illustrations: 29 halftones, 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2003
OCLC Number: 861693010
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