Fire! Folk Art!

“The 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.