Playing with Fire

Wooden box of American fire department picture toy showing much use, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Wooden box of American fire department picture toy showing much use, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

“Fire engines gave us the same thrill that children have felt in all times at the sight of running horses accompanied by the clanging of bells.” –Samuel Canby Rumford 

Samuel Canby Rumford grew up in a house on the corner of Market and Fourteenth streets in Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1880s. Later in life he reminisced about the excitement of witnessing courageous firefighters, the action heroes of the day, imperil their own lives to save others while battling dangerous blazes.  To capitalize on children’s hero worship of these brave men, famed board game maker Milton Bradley & Company created a sectional picture toy in 1882 of a “complete modern American Fire Department.” When placed in a seven-foot continuous line, the pieces reveal a steamer, hose carriage, chemical engine, insurance patrol team, and hook and ladder truck dashing through city streets en route to a fire.

The toy is shown below, section by section, accompanied by Rumford’s reminiscences, which nearly describe the scenes at hand.

Picture of steamer from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Picture of steamer from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

“Each engine company had a pumper drawn by a well-matched pair of horses, which derived as much pleasure from their wild dash to the fire as did any of the spectators. …it was indeed a sight to see the engine come swaying and bouncing along with a line of smoke and sparks streaming from its smoke stack.” –Samuel Canby Rumford

 

Picture of hose carriage from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Picture of hose carriage from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

“The hose carriages, which had a large reel upon which the hose was wound and many bells swinging from coiled springs, were drawn to the fire by means of two long ropes in the hands of all the available young people in the neighborhood, the same means being used to transport the long wagon carrying ladders and other equipment.” –Samuel Canby Rumford 

 

Picture of hook and ladder truck from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Picture of hook and ladder truck from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

“…firemen in high rubber boots and shiny black rubber coats under gorgeous red tin hats with wide brims, on the front of which was the insignia of their company.  The chief and assistant of each company were armed with shiny nickel trumpets thru which they shouted many orders that no one could understand.  Finally a toot would come from the engine to show that steam was up and after much more shouting the stream of water would start, usually being squirted over the spectators before it was at last directed toward the flames.” –Samuel Canby Rumford

Picture of chemical engine from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

Picture of chemical engine from American fire department toy, Doc. 55, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Library

The picture toy delivered on its promise of “the most modern machines” in featuring not only steam power, a crucial development over hand-pumping in providing faster, steadier supplies of water, but also a chemical engine. Especially useful in dense urban areas, sodium bicarbonate (or baking soda) helped to extinguish fires with minimal water damage.

Rumford died in 1950 at age 74.  Having observed the advent of automotive and mechanical means in the early decades of the 20th century, he still remembered the multisensory spectacle and excitement of firefighting in his youth as shown in this 1906 set of postcards showing firemen in action.

Firemen-Series001 Firemen-Series002 Firemen-Series003 Firemen-Series004 Firemen-Series005 Firemen-Series006 Firemen-Series007

 

Kids today still get a thrill out of hearing the ear-piercing siren of a fire truck and seeing it race off, so the firefighters can fight the flames and save lives. Let them live out their firefighter fantasies during Winterthur’s Truck and Tractor Day on October 3, 10:00 am–4:00 pm. Kids can climb on the Winterthur fire truck, dress in firefighter gear, and put out a “fire” with our pumper truck. In addition to the firefighting fun, there will be lots of antique farm vehicles, hayrides, arts and crafts, and even a mechanical cow to milk!

Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera

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