Did brawling firefighters kill urban volunteer departments?

While rowdyism and thug-like behavior among urban volunteers is well documented, that traditional narrative is somewhat contrived

This is the second of a four-part series on professionalism in firefighting, specifically how it evolved out of the transition from urban volunteers to a paid fire service and how volunteers would later come to embrace the concept of professionalism itself.

Ideas and information influence our thinking, inform our decision-making and sometimes lead us to try new ways of doing things. Knowing something about volunteer firefighting's history is critical for understanding how fire services developed in the United States.

For the volunteer's history, we need to look at the role of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was indeed behind the formation of a volunteer fire society in Philadelphia in 1736, but it wasn't the first volunteer fire department. Boston used a paid-call service well before that, as did Amsterdam, while London used independent insurance brigades.

In the public's mind, over the course of about 50 years, roughly from 1800 to 1850, America's urban volunteer firemen went from being heroes to thugs.
In the public's mind, over the course of about 50 years, roughly from 1800 to 1850, America's urban volunteer firemen went from being heroes to thugs. (Photo/Pixabay)

Franklin gets credit for bringing an existing idea to Philadelphia and pushing it forward with a slightly different twist — the idea of like-minded individuals joining together voluntarily to help one another for collective mutual benefit.

His idea was likely built upon his experiences working for a London printer where he gained firsthand knowledge of voluntary tradesmen associations and of the London system of mutually owned fire insurance associations.

Transfer of new ideas

Ideas drive most decisions and, when shared, promote change. Eighteenth-century ideas were transmitted by people traveling and sharing their stories.

Certain cities became strategic centers because of location and geographic attributes. In the age of sail, cities with deep harbors and docks became the conduits for information exchange. Franklin's adopted home of Philadelphia was one such city.

Many others besides Franklin were sharing ideas down at the docks and in nearby taverns and meeting halls. New ideas about firefighting organization, techniques, and inventions spread city to city, especially between Amsterdam, Edinburgh and London.

Those ideas made it across the Atlantic and American ideas also flowed back to Europe in a two-way exchange.

Revered, maligned, reviled

In the public's mind, over the course of about 50 years, roughly from 1800 to 1850, America's urban volunteer firemen went from being heroes to thugs.

The demands on volunteers in these highly combustible cities forced a shift from Franklin's idea of a fire club to something closer to a real organization. While rowdyism and thug-like behavior among urban volunteers is well documented, that traditional narrative is somewhat contrived.

As with so many controversies, there is more to this one than meets the eye. Public rowdyism is lawless behavior to be dealt with severely and eradicated, especially if it involves firemen. Rowdyism increased the risk of severe fire.

For business owners and politicians, fire gangs and rowdyism represented both a real and an imagined threat to those interests' common goal of expanding urban economic markets and seeking greater profit and consolidation of political power.  

That truth is lost in the narrative of the rowdy firemen and historiography exposes weaknesses in the traditional view of volunteer decline. Fire was an ever-present threat and a constant fear of residents in 19th-century cities.

Volunteers faithfully performed their duties so earning the public's trust and gratitude — in return they were honored as heroes and guardians of the city. This remained the case everywhere except where rowdyism and fire gangs battled the police and each other.

Safe and orderly cities offered a higher quality of life and a better place to do business. In cities where violence was prevalent, there was a public call for paid fire forces for reasons of order and safety.

In other large cities where there was minimal violence or the mere perception of a threat, the volunteers were replaced only to achieve local goals. 

Factory work

There were other factors in the move to paid firemen worth mentioning. The Industrial Age forced a shift in occupations because factories required employees to operate machines, while tradesmen saw livelihoods disappear as factories readily produced goods once been made by hand.

Also, as cities grew, fires increased in turn requiring more volunteer companies and more firemen.

Division of labor in the factories split workers into two social strata, the blue-collar and white-collar classes. Blue-collar male workers tended to frequent taverns, fight and chase trouble. White-collar male workers tended to join clubs, fraternal organizations, or stay home — and many tended to sobriety.

These two patterns of male behavioral traits co-existed within the membership of the urban volunteer fire companies. 

The decline in volunteer fire company membership is also thought by some historians to be related to the need for factory workers, including managers, to be sober, ready for work, and be on time every morning. This wasn't always possible if you were a volunteer in a city that saw frequent fires, especially severe ones at night.

In time, some fire company membership rolls began to reflect a demographic shift to all blue-collar workers and newly arrived European immigrants. The emerging urban middle class saw this as a threat.

Post-war changes

The early volunteers deserve credit for experimenting with and implementing new ideas. For example, in 1803 Philadelphia, a fire company became the first in America to use fire hose to move water via relays (hose had been used for relays as standard practice in Amsterdam as far back as the late-1600s).

The use of hose furthered the concept of specialization where individuals, as well as individual companies, took on special duties as their main function at fires. But specialization is not the end of the story. 

The gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine along with mass-produced trucks fitted with pumps, water tanks, ladders and firefighting equipment made rural and suburban fire protection possible. With volunteers, it was also affordable and thus an attractive option for smaller communities.

With the post-World War II economic and population boom, many volunteer fire departments suddenly found themselves responsible for protecting rapidly developing suburban areas with sub-divisions, shopping malls, industrial parks and office complexes.

This was also the Cold-War Era with the frightening threat of nuclear attack across wide-swaths of the United States, and the volunteer fire company was seen as a part of civil defense.

Had all the volunteer fire companies degraded into violent behavior we would not have been witness to the survival of the volunteer fire service through the 19th and 20th centuries to the present.

Certainly from mid-19th century onward, the urban, paid, municipal fire department captured the glory battling great fires and conflagrations. Yet, in thousands of small and rural communities the VFD survived.

Read the next article in the series: How the great fires changed the fire service

This article was originally posted May 19, 2015. It has been updated with new information.

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