Fire! Folk Art!
easterly side of the street was principally lined with wooden buildings,
and in the vicinity were stables, barns, work-shops, bake-houses
surrounded with faggots, soap-houses filled with tallow and every thing
was in perfect readiness, like a tinder-box, to burst into a blaze from
every falling spark.” This quote from a Portland newspaper in 1822
describes the way a fire spread in the city that June. With open
flames in almost every building, and most construction of wood, fire was
an ever-present danger in early America.
Not surprisingly everyone was
expected to participate in measures that would help with the early
dousing of fires, before they became drastically out of control.
One of the essential firefighting devices was the leather fire bucket.
Most homes kept at least two of these that could be used in one’s own
home or brought to a fire somewhere else to provide assistance.
The buckets were usually hand stitched from thick cowhide. The
owner was required to have his name on the bucket, or risk losing it at
the next big conflagration. Like many common household items, fire
buckets were sometimes decorated, usually with paint. These painted
treasures are often excellent examples of folk art.
Four of the fire
buckets in our collection are essentially identical in decoration,
although they bear different owners’ names. These must have been
issued to members of the same fire insurance company. It’s remarkable
(to twenty-first century eyes) that these “corporate” fire buckets were
so lavishly painted, with wide golden curlicues and fancy lettering, and
bright, though faded, red rims.