Archival Adventures in Small Repositories
Where's The Fire?
The history of firefighting in Philadelphia began with an all volunteer fire company in 1736, The Union Fire Company, which was formed by Benjamin Franklin. Along with many other volunteer companies throughout the city these men fought the fires of Philadelphia for over 100 years. In 1870 the city passed an ordinance creating the professional fire department which still exists today.
The inner workings of a fire department, the equipment they use, and their acts of bravery are extremely popular with everyone from kids to adults. The Fireman's Hall Museum in Philadelphia has on display firefighting equipment and ephemera from its basic beginnings to the advanced science of today.
There are items for home use like the fire extinguisher "grenade," fire trucks from their elaborate past to the modern, and what we and many others find fascinating, the fire mark.
Fire marks were placed on a house to show which fire insurance company was used by the owner. There is a popular myth that has been passed around that the fire companies would only put out a fire on a home which was marked, but this is not true. The volunteer fire companies in Philadelphia existed before the first insurance company and would put out any fire regardless of whether they were insured or not.
The Fireman's Hall Museum not only maintains a multitude of firefighting related items, they also hold a large amount of records relating to the volunteer fire companies, the Philadelphia Fire Department, and the fire insurance companies. The fire insurance records contain information on every fire with which the company was involved. There is a location, date, name of the property owner, cause of the fire, how much insurance was held, how much was paid out on the policy, and which fire company responded to the fire.
These records alone contain a wealth of information for a researcher. Combined with the records of the fire department, which contains information on the inner working of the individual companies as well as information on the fire fighters themselves, the research possibilities at the museum are almost endless.
The bravery and heroics of the firefighters of Philadelphia are well represented at the Fireman's Hall Museum. Whether you are fascinated by the equipment, searching for information on an ancestor, or researching a fire the museum will likely have what you need and more.
You can find descriptions of the collections at the Fireman's Hall Museum on the PACSCL finding aid website.