Benjamin Franklin’s “Bucket Brigade:” The Union Fire Company

"Prospect of the New Lutherian Church in Phila'd...which was consumed by fire," watercolored engraving by Reiche (undated)

According to the United States Fire Administration, holiday fires claim hundreds of lives each year and cause millions of dollars in damage to homes and properties.  Hopefully none of us will be among those calling our local fire department this season.  If you do, however, chances are your will be calling on volunteer firefighters.  The National Fireman Volunteer Council states that of all firemen and women in the United States, a whopping 72% of them are volunteers.  And who do we have to thank for starting this trend of organized volunteer firehouses?  Why Benjamin Franklin, of course, that 18th century jack-of-all-trades.

"Benjamin Franklin, the Fireman" photograph of original 1850 painting by C. W. Wright, 1795 (undated)

This year marks the 274th anniversary of the founding of the all-volunteer Union Fire Company, which was formally established in Philadelphia on December 7, 1736.  Though men had banned together to fight fires in other cities well before 1736, the Union Fire Company was the first formally organized company.  At the helm of its formation was Benjamin Franklin, who announced the city’s needs for fire engines and firefighters in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, in the early 1730s.  In December 1736, Franklin and twenty-four other citizens, including William Rawle, Edward Shippen, and Benjamin Shoemaker, came together to create the Union Fire Company’s articles of agreement.  Unlike other fire societies that generally assisted only their paying members when fires occured, members of the Union Fire Company resolved to help anyone in distress.

The Union Fire Company remained very active in the city throughout the eighteenth century.  Membership began to decline in the early nineteenth century, however, and the company officially disbanded in 1843.

While the Union Fire Company no longer exists, the insurance company that grew out of a fund established in 1750 by Union Fire Company members, including Benjamin Franklin, is still going strong.  The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire (now called The Philadelphia Contributionship) is the nation’s oldest fire insurance company.  HSP has a significant collection of their insurance survey records dating from 1839 to 1965.

So while we hope this year’s accidents are kept to a minimum, if your turkey fryer goes bonkers or you find out a little too late that your Christmas tree isn’t playing nice with your 30-year-old fraying strand of lights, rest assured that your local (volunteer) firefighters are just a phone call away.

We hope you enjoy a wonderful and safe holiday!—from all of us at HSP.

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