Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Cause for Alarm

Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City

Amy S. Greenberg
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvfv6
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Cause for Alarm
    Book Description:

    Though central to the social, political, and cultural life of the nineteenth-century city, the urban volunteer fire department has nevertheless been largely ignored by historians. Redressing this neglect, Amy Greenberg reveals the meaning of this central institution by comparing the fire departments of Baltimore, St. Louis, and San Francisco from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Volunteer fire companies protected highly flammable cities from fire and provided many men with friendship, brotherhood, and a way to prove their civic virtue. While other scholars have claimed that fire companies were primarily working class, Greenberg shows that they were actually mixed social groups: merchants and working men, immigrants and native-born--all found a common identity as firemen.Cause for Alarmpresents a new vision of urban culture, one defined not by class but by gender. Volunteer firefighting united men in a shared masculine celebration of strength and bravery, skill and appearance. In an otherwise alienating environment, fire companies provided men from all walks of life with status, community, and an outlet for competition, which sometimes even led to elaborate brawls.

    While this culture was fully respected in the early nineteenth century, changing social norms eventually demonized the firemen's vision of masculinity. Greenberg assesses the legitimacy of accusations of violence and political corruption against the firemen in each city, and places the municipalization of firefighting in the context of urban social change, new ideals of citizenship, the rapid spread of fire insurance, and new firefighting technologies.

    Originally published in 1998.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6492-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. LIST OF TABLES, FIGURES, AND MAPS
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  2. Introduction BEGINNING AT THE WAKE
    (pp. 3-17)

    It was no ordinary alarm that brought together San Francisco’s volunteer firemen late one December evening in 1866. The manly firemen—the butchers and clerks, the merchants and politicians, the immigrants and the native born—donned their velvet- and leather-trimmed dress uniforms and gathered in equally elegant engine houses to solemnly mark the end of their volunteer careers. At midnight, December 2, 1866, firefighting in San Francisco became the work of men hired by the city, as the volunteers were officially replaced by a paid force. A large portion of the 775 volunteers joined together to celebrate the glorious history...

  3. Chapter One PAYING TRIBUTE
    (pp. 18-40)

    Currier and Ives, the leading producers of popular artistic prints in antebellum America, produced ten separate prints honoring the urban volunteer fireman in two separate series, the “Life of a Fireman,” and the “American Fireman.” The former, which illustrated the activities of the New York Volunteer Fire Department, was among the most popular of all their prints.²

    According to a twentieth-century art historian, “If Currier and Ives had issued only the six large folio lithographs which comprise ‘The Life of a Fireman’ Series, their reputation would have been fully established. These prints . . . depict with great accuracy all...

  4. Chapter Two MANLY BOYS AND CHASTE FIRE ENGINES: THE CULTURE OF THE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT
    (pp. 41-79)

    The best-selling magazine of the 1850s wasGodey’s Lady’s Book,edited by Sarah Hale for a female audience.Godey’sfeatured saccharine romantic stories, didactic cautionary tales, interior-decorating tips, and illustrated reports of new fashions for the well-dressed lady.Godey’shad a circulation of 70,000 in 1850, 100,000 in 1856, and 150,000 by the Civil War. Hale has been called Domesticity’s greatest advocate, and indeedGodey’smagazine seems to have been designed to advance the interests of the newly emerging American middle class. An explicitly gendered publication, it graced the equally gendered parlors of middle-class women across America.¹

    Marcus Boruck, volunteer...

  5. Chapter Three FIGHTS/FIRES: A GLANCE AT VIOLENT FIREMEN
    (pp. 80-108)

    In the 1850s, Currier and Ives’s volunteer firemen graced middle-class homes, Marcus Boruck’sFireman’s Journalgraced firehouse parlors, and a fireman named Mose graced the stage. The 1848 melodrama,A Glance at New York,launched the career of the second most famous volunteer fireman of the nineteenth century² The character Mose Humphreys (fig. 3.1), commonly known as “Mose the Bowery B’hoy,” but also as “Fighting Mose” and “Mose, Hero of a Hundred Muses,” was a seegar-smoking, rowdy volunteer fire laddie who emerged from an otherwise ordinary production to magnetize the country in over one thousand performances in the 1850s.³

    A...

  6. Chapter Four SMOKE-FILLED ROOMS: VOLUNTEER FIREMEN AND POLITICAL CULTURE
    (pp. 109-124)

    A Roman emperor issued the first recorded warning about the dangers of the political fire department, an assessment that observers of antebellum urban volunteer departments frequently supported. Fire companies and politicians seemed to have a strange affinity for one another. By 1836, according to Philip Hone, the firemen of New York were “so courted for political objects that they appear to consider themselves above the law.” In Cincinnati, firemen paraded a coffin through the city “advertising the fact that two councilmen held responsible for defeating an appropriation had signed their political death warrants.” While Mose might be the nineteenth century’s...

  7. Chapter Five INSURING PROTECTION: FIRE INSURANCE AND THE ERA OF THE STEAM ENGINE
    (pp. 125-151)

    As reports of riots, politicians, and corrupt firehouses increasingly demonized the masculine culture of volunteer firefighting—the stage was clearly set for the volunteer fire department’s denouement. Their tribute relationship with the antebellum city had disintegrated, but as yet nothing had replaced the volunteer fire department as an object of the public’s faith. What theFireman’s Journalidentified as the “real power which preserves” citizens from fire was still in the hands of the fire department.

    Until that final transference was made, municipal governments had no choice but to continue their uneasy standoff with the firemen. After all, paid departments...

  8. Chapter Six DELUGED AND DISGRACED
    (pp. 152-162)

    Captain W. P. Barlow, once a proud St. Louis volunteer, thus expressed the shared dismay of his volunteer brethren when faced with the travesty that was paid firefighting. The first transition months were the hardest. In both St. Louis and Baltimore, during the six-month period after the paid fire departments were instituted, volunteer companies were essentially lame-duck protectors of their cities. They remained in operation while steam engines were on order and the paid department was organized. There was no such grace period in San Francisco. For better or worse, once the paid department was instituted, the volunteers could immediately...

  9. Conclusion ONE LAST EULOGY
    (pp. 163-166)

    Only a fool would mourn the death of volunteer firefighting, since volunteer firefighting is clearly alive. Only a small minority of American firefighters are paid. In fact, volunteer departments purchase about 80 percent of the firefighting equipment sold in the United States. Firefighters in small towns and rural areas are as actively hostile to municipalization today as their predecessors were 150 years ago. Volunteers continue to find camaraderie, brotherhood (and sisterhood), and public honor in their unpaid work, and maintain that paid firefighters wouldn’t work as hard.¹

    But in urban America, the experiment of volunteer fire protection proved a conspicuous...

  10. Appendix OCCUPATIONAL SCALE USED FOR QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS
    (pp. 167-168)