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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Thomas C. Amory 1806; green bucket picturing "Gabrielle Blowing Her Horn;" probably Peabody, Mass., area; 12 1/2 inches high; $3,968. Photo courtesy of James D. Julia
The cry of “Fire” was the worst heard in a colonial town. Wood buildings were packed together tightly. Like ice in the sun, they melted easily in the hands of a raging fire.

Two lines of sleepy, worn out people usually stretched from the town well to the burning buildings. All night long, men in the bucket brigade passed their containers full of water from one man to the next.

Women and children formed a second line passing the empty buckets back to the well. Their repetitive motion was driven by one goal, to drown the flames and stamp out the inferno.

Each cowhide fire bucket used was reinforced at the brim with a wooden hoop. The handle was probably leather-covered hemp.

When the sun finally came up, most of the buildings in the central business district were probably gone. Every able bodied person was on hand, but it usually wasn’t enough.

Disastrous fires like this were not uncommon in the 18th century. It led people like Benjamin Franklin to form early fire units where bucket brigades evolved into fire departments.

In the meantime, leather fire buckets made by Dutch shoemakers served as the tools of the trade. A bucket usually bore the homeowner’s name in paint. How many buckets in a household depended on the risk. One bucket for each fireplace was common.

In the confusion after a fire, buckets lay heaped in piles waiting to be reclaimed by their owners. To distinguish one from another, people began to paint their names, initials, emblems and designs on them.

When the mobile, hand-drawn pumper came along later in the century, it was the bucket brigades which kept them full of water. Most big cities had at least two pumpers. By the mid-1800s, steam-driven pumps replaced the hand-drawn models.

Insurance companies in the colonies also started issuing plaques or fire marks to identify buildings they insured. Displayed on the front of a building, these lead plaques were incentives to volunteer fire fighters. They claimed awards based on how much of a burning building and its contents were saved. Without a fire mark, a building often burned to the ground.

Nowadays, this early fire fighting equipment is highly collectible. It’s Americana at its sweetest. The fancier the fire bucket, the better. Finding one in great condition with clear, strong design is a rarity.

Abandoned fire houses used to be a good source for fire fighting collectibles. Not true any more.

Reproductions are one of the mine fields in this genre of collecting. Take fire marks as an example. Since the 1930s, vintage lead marks have been duplicated in cast iron and sold not so much as fakes but as interesting decorative items. One way to tell reproductions is they tend to be slightly larger and heavier than the real thing.

On Aug. 24-26, James D. Julia held an auction in Samoset Resort in Rockport, Maine which included a selection of vintage and rare fire buckets. Here are some current values.

Leather Fire Buckets

Malden Fire Club, No. 32, 1822; green painted bucket with gold/mustard lettering; 13 inches high; $1,984.

S.A. Ward, No 2, 1827; black tapered bucket with white writing; 10 1/2 inches high; $1,654.

W.M. Downing 1804; pair; black buckets with red, pink and white scrolled leaf decorative banner and black lettering; found in Kennebunk, Maine; 12 inches high; $2,645.

Thomas C. Amory 1806; green bucket picturing Gabrielle blowing her horn; probably Peabody, Mass., area; 12 1/2 inches high; $3,968.

Lewis Barnes No 1, 1789; black bucket picturing burning tree; vertical striping in red, white and black is typical of buckets found in Portsmouth, N.H., 12 inches high; $4,299.

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