May 4, 2010

Putting Out Fires in Style: A History of the Fire Extinguisher

Tucked away in corners and niches, invisible in spite of being large and red, the fire extinguisher is one of the most controlled objects in our environment.  Manufacturing standards for fire extinguishers in the USA are stipulated by the Underwriters Laboratories. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulates their use and maintenance with a national code; in addition to a fire code formulated by each state. Each extinguisher, therefore, bristles with the seals and certifications, the panels of instruction and information that painstakingly ensure its compliance with all these rules. However, outside the 15 seconds it takes for them to empty their contents (as stipulated by the NFPA), they hold little meaning or personal significance for their users.

This wasn’t always the case, especially in the days when the only way of fighting a fire was to hurl a bucket of water at it. A law passed in 1687 called for every citizen of New York to own one leather bucket for every chimney, clearly marked with the initials of the landlord. These were to be at the disposal of firefighters in the event of a fire, and failure to comply would result in a fine of six shillings. Yet, leather fire buckets from the 1700s were beautifully crafted objects, often carrying a painting of the building or a portrait of the owner. They were clearly objects that people were proud to possess, whether or not the City required it. In 1803, a group of citizens in New York actually took up arms against city officials because their buckets were not being returned to them after the fire had been extinguished. This event has gone down in Fire Department history as the Great Bucket Revolt in the Third Ward.