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    Wheeled fire extinguisher from 1900s

    I knew the old dirty cart with the crumbling hose and metal wheels was a piece of early fire equipment. Its red color defined it as something belonging to those who battled blazes a long time ago. It had that “I’m from another time” look about it.

    My mind tagged it as a hose cart until I ventured closer and saw what looked like a giant fire extinguisher attached to its center. A coil of hose had been draped on the back, where it had likely been placed decades ago in wait for the next run.

    I learned, though, that this wasn’t one of those early hose carts that 19th-century firefighters  pulled to the site of house fires. It was a wheeled fire extinguisher used in factories to put out chemical fires. It was much too small to douse a large house fire.

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    A wheeled fire extinguisher ready to be sold at auction.

    I’m used to hand extinguishers like the one I have in my kitchen (they have their origins in England in the 18th century), but I’d never seen a large one on wheels.

    Most wheeled fire extinguishers – or “chemical carts,” as one site labeled them – were first in use near the end of the 19th century and far into the 20th century. Companies apparently got a break on their insurance if they had the extinguishers on hand and workers who knew how to use them.

    They were prevalent at a time when volunteer – and in fewer instances, paid – firefighters were still using hose carts drawn by men and horses.

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    A back view of the wheeled fire extinguisher.

    A YouTube video showed an extinguisher from the 1900s on the grounds of the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. A sign in the video noted that it was used to put out chemical fires in sugar mills. Last year, a hose cart and wheeled fire extinguisher from around 1885 were found in a barn in Williamstown, NJ, apparently having belonged to the local fire department. The fire company was organized in 1909, bought two hand-drawn hose carts, followed by two more about 10 years later. The department bought a horse-drawn fire wagon – it had no horses so the men pulled it – in the early 1920s and still later came pumpers.

    Water for the hoses was retrieved from water mains donated and laid by a local company, while in other cities and towns water was drawn from ponds, cisterns, hydrants and other sources.

    Before the hoses, though, citizens used buckets of water – the so-called bucket brigades – to put out fires. That was largely the case when the first volunteer fire companies were formed. Boston was among the first cities to organize a fire company when around 1711 a group of neighbors decided to form a Mutual Fire Society to come to each other’s aid in case of fire. They were not the only ones: New York and other cities also had volunteer bucket brigades, and both Boston and New York are said to have had some type of firefighting equipment in the 1600s.

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    The hose on the wheeled fire extinguisher seems to have been laid to rest.

    Benjamin Franklin was so taken with Boston’s setup that he helped organize the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736 – a group that also aided its two-dozen members. They appeared at a fire not only with leather water buckets but with cloth bags to hold valuables rescued from a burning house.

    Other volunteer fire companies followed, along with folks who sold fire insurance to homeowners and businesses. Franklin helped form The Philadelphia Contributionship in 1752. Like other insurance companies, Union had its own fire mark (four hands holding each other at the wrist) that was affixed to homes to indicate to firefighters which house was insured by which company. The insurance companies had their own fire brigades. Here are some of the various fire marks.

    Some of these fire marks are still on homes in Philadelphia, and they are considered valuable.

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    The coils of an aged hose on a wheeled fire extinguisher.

    As for the wheeled fire extinguisher, I found several vintage ones on the web and learned that they are still being made. One site noted that there is not much demand for them, and they are sought primarily by those who collect firefighting equipment.

    I found two pages of them for sale on eBay ranging from $40 to $3,000. None were sold. Unfortunately, they’re not the type of item that can be re-tooled for decorative uses. Or are they?

     

     

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