By SARA DUKE
The Library's Prints and Photographs Division recently acquired the Currier & Ives print titled "American Fireman: Always Ready" as a gift from Abraham and Julienne Krasnoff, members of the James Madison Council (the Library's private sector advisory committee). This acquisition completes the Library's collection of the four-part series that illustrates the important role played by firemen in society. On display through mid-October in the "American Treasures" exhibition, the print was the subject of a Treasure Talk given by Prints and Photographs Division curator Sara Duke in June.
American firemen have been viewed as heroic figures from the time they organized into volunteer departments in the early 18th century to the paid professionals of today. In the 19th century, many artists and publishers were volunteer firemen in urban centers, and it is they who created much of the heroic imagery that surrounds the profession.
As the image of the selfless American firefighter dominated the media in the weeks and months that followed the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the New York Times featured a photograph of a New York store front that displayed a copy of the 1858 Currier & Ives print "American Fireman: Always Ready" on Sept. 23, 2001 (below). With the recent acquisition of this original lithograph, the Library of Congress completes its collection of the four-part series by artist Louis Maurer.
The publishers of the series, Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, served as volunteer firemen themselves in New York during the 1850s. In 1858, German-born Maurer, who was working for their popular print firm at the time, created the firefighter series called "American Fireman." At the time Maurer created these images, firefighting was undergoing a major transition from volunteer companies to professional, paid forces.
Companies of men organized shortly after firefighting equipment was introduced in this country in 1731. In 1737, New York City created a volunteer department, the Firemen of the City of New York. The engines they used had pumps, limited only by the volunteers' capacity to fill and operate them. Companies of 30 to 50 men organized around each pumper which the city acquired as it grew.
During the mid-19th century, immigration made the populations of American cities extremely fluid. For young, healthy men, the firehouse was a home. Some companies stocked a library, saloon and furnishings to compete with the finest homes in the community. Most men ceased to volunteer after marriage; women were absent not only from the firehouse, but also from gatherings of firemen, emphasizing the fact that firemen were separate from the rest of American society.
Firefighting required a fair amount of bravado, strength and agility. Maurer idealized the volunteers, who were shown as strong types, fearless of fire. In the first of four prints titled "American Fireman: Rushing to the Conflict," the fire chief gestures toward the fire with one hand while holding his trumpet in the other. Acquired by the Library as a copyright deposit, the lithograph was printed off-center, and Currier & Ives scored through the fireman's face so that the print was not offered for sale.
The series continued with "American Fireman: Prompt to the Rescue," which depicts a fireman walking through flames into a bedroom to rescue a woman in night clothes who has fainted. He neither struggles against the weight of her body nor shows fear of the conflagration.
In "American Fireman: Facing the Enemy," the fireman stares down the fire as if he were St. George slaying the dragon (see p. 187). The firefighter is pictured atop the fire, having extinguished it. It illustrates the close proximity to the fire required of firefighters before the advent of steam-powered pumpers. The first pumpers, with their short hoses, required volunteers to work close to the fire. It was dangerous work, and many were injured and killed.
In the fourth print titled "American Fireman: Always Ready" (p. 184) which was recently acquired by the Library as a gift, the firefighter is shown pulling his engineer out of the firehouse. His leaning body is central to the image. Although his body strains to pull the pumper to the fire, there is no evidence of exertion in his face.
Maurer worked for Currier & Ives for eight years, during which time he created both the "American Fireman" series and four of six works in an earlier series titled "The Life of a Fireman" (1854). The second series proved so popular that Currier & Ives published two additional scenes after he left the firm, and then reissued all of them in the 1880s, long after the volunteer companies ceased to exist.
In "The Life of a Fireman: The Ruins–'Take up'–'Man Your Rope'" (see p. 188) from the earlier series of prints, Maurer creates a scene of camaraderie among the various companies putting out the fire. No rancor on the part of rival companies exists. In reality, competition existed among companies as they vied for position in the race to fires.
In the picture, firemen are preparing to extinguish the fire in what is left of a building. During most of the 19th century, firefighters focused on preventing fires from spreading rather than preventing the entire destruction of a building. Maurer shows the equipment in detail, including the connections between pumper, hose and hydrant. Here, men pull against the weight of their equipment, connect lengths of hose, and work to pump water on the fire while a crowd of citizens stands by passively.
In "Life of a Fireman: The Night Alarm–'Start Her Lively Boys'" (right) Maurer depicts Excelsior Company No. 2 of 21 Henry Street, leaving the fire station. At left, Nathaniel Currier runs to join his compatriots. Thirteen volunteers move the pumper out of the firehouse in the middle of the night, some dressed in firefighting gear, others in the civilian clothes that they put on when they heeded the alarm.
None of Maurer's images within either series depicts steam-powered or horse-driven fire wagons. These were modern conveniences eschewed by the volunteer companies. The steam engine, which required far less manpower than hand pumpers–as well as horses to pull it–would bring about the demise of the volunteer companies.
Both of the "Life of a Fireman" lithographs mentioned above are in the Library's Prints and Photographs collection, along with the two that were created by other artists after Maurer left Currier & Ives. These include "Life of a Fireman: The New Era–Steam and Muscle," created by Charles Parsons in 1861, and "The Life of a Fireman: The Metropolitan System" by John Cameron, which completed the series in 1866.
This final image in the series depicts firemen racing on foot to the fire, but the real work appears to be done by new, more powerful, horse-driven steam pumpers, hoses and ladders, which are racing across cobblestone streets. In the print, fewer people line the city streets to watch the firefighters than in previous depictions. Presumably, a burning building was less of a spectacle given the advent of superior firefighting forces.
While Currier & Ives created lithographic prints of firemen during the decline of the volunteer period, the firm itself was in its heyday. It was America's longest running printing establishment, publishing more than 7,000 images spanning 73 years. Currier, who had trained as a lithographer from the age of 15, struggled as a publisher in New York until he achieved his first financial success in 1840 with a broadside of the sinking of the Lexington. Ives joined Currier as a bookkeeper in 1852. When he became a full partner in 1857, the name was changed from N. Currier to Currier & Ives. The firm, which specialized in handmade, hand-colored prints, produced popular prints until 1907.
In 1877, even after the transition to professional fire departments was complete, Currier & Ives drew upon both the volunteer images in the "American Fireman" and "The Life of the Fireman" series to create a certificate of company membership for firemen. The certificate, which the Library acquired through copyright deposit, depicts hand-drawn pumpers, companies running to the fire, and the heroic rescue of an infant.
The urban love affair with volunteer fire companies came to an end in the 1850s, just as Currier & Ives began to romanticize it. Between 1853 and 1866, nearly every major city in America replaced its volunteer fire department with a professional, paid force. Nevertheless, more than a century later, the icon of the firefighter–idealized and fearless, in a world apart–still hearkens back to the days of the volunteer companies.
Sara Duke is assistant curator of popular and applied graphic art in the Prints and Photographs Division.