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Eating Smoke

Fire in Urban America, 1800–1950

Mark Tebeau

Publication Year: 2003

During the period of America's swiftest industrialization and urban growth, fire struck fear in the hearts of city dwellers as did no other calamity. Before the Civil War, sweeping blazes destroyed more than $200 million in property in the nation's largest cities. Between 1871 and 1906, conflagrations left Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco in ruins. Into the twentieth century, this dynamic hazard intensified as cities grew taller and more populous, confounding those who battled it. Firefighters' death-defying feats captured the popular imagination but too often failed to provide more than symbolic protection. Hundreds of fire insurance companies went bankrupt because they could not adequately deal with the effects of even smaller blazes. Firefighters and fire insurers created a physical and cultural infrastructure whose legacy—in the form of heroic firefighters, insurance policies, building standards, and fire hydrants—lives on in the urban built environment. In Eating Smoke, Mark Tebeau shows how the changing practices of firefighters and fire insurers shaped the built landscape of American cities, the growth of municipal institutions, and the experience of urban life. Drawing on a wealth of fire department and insurance company archives, he contrasts the invention of a heroic culture of firefighters with the rational organizational strategies by fire underwriters. Recognizing the complexity of shifting urban environments and constantly experimenting with tools and tactics, firefighters fought fire ever more aggressively—"eating smoke" when they ventured deep into burning buildings or when they scaled ladders to perform harrowing rescues. In sharp contrast to the manly valor of firefighters, insurers argued that the risk was quantifiable, measurable, and predictable. Underwriters managed hazard with statistics, maps, and trade associations, and they eventually agitated for building codes and other reforms, which cities throughout the nation implemented in the twentieth century. Although they remained icons of heroism, firefighters' cultural and institutional authority slowly diminished. Americans had begun to imagine fire risk as an economic abstraction. By comparing the simple skills employed by firefighters—climbing ladders and manipulating hoses—with the mundane technologies—maps and accounting charts—of insurers, the author demonstrates that the daily routines of both groups were instrumental in making intense urban and industrial expansion a less precarious endeavor.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

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. ...

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Introduction: The Problem of Fire

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pp. 1-10

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

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1. Workshops of Democracy: The Invention of Volunteer Firefighting

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pp. 13-53

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. ...

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2. The Business of Safety: The American Fire Insurance Industry, 1800–1850

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pp. 54-86

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

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3. Statistics, Maps, and Morals: Making Fire Risk Objective, 1850–1875

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pp. 89-125

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. ...

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4. Muscle and Steam: Establishing Municipal Fire Departments, 1850–1875

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pp. 126-166

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

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5. Disciplining the City: Everyday Practice and Mapping Risk, 1875–1900

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pp. 169-201

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. ...

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6. Becoming Heroes: A New Standard for Urban Fire Safety, 1875–1900

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pp. 202-244

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

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7. Consuming Safety: Fire Prevention and Fire Risk in the Twentieth Century

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pp. 247-284

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. ...

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8. Eating Smoke: Rational Heroes in the Twentieth Century

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pp. 285-326

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. ...

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Conclusion: Fighting Fire in Postwar America

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pp. 327-342

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

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pp. 343-347

Appendix 2: Firefighting Careers

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pp. 348-354


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pp. 355-356


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pp. 357-400

Essay on Sources

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pp. 401-414


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pp. 415-425

E-ISBN-13: 9781421412504
E-ISBN-10: 1421412500
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421407623
Print-ISBN-10: 1421407620

Page Count: 440
Illustrations: 29 halftones, 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2003