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Fire Department

An ounce of prevention ... a pound of cure

Ben Franklin, Firefighter
19th c. image of Franklin as firefighter.
Franklin Fire Philadephia
On a visit to Boston, Benjamin Franklin noted that the inhabitants of his native city were far better prepared to fight fires than the natives of his adopted city, Philadelphia. Upon returning home, he consulted the Junto, a benevolent group dedicated to civic and self-improvement, and asked for their suggestions on better ways to combat fires.

Franklin also sought to raise public awareness about the city's dire need to improve fire-fighting techniques. In a Pennsylvania Gazette article of 1733 Franklin noted how fires were being fought in Philadelphia. "Soon after it [a fire] is seen and cry'd out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing fire."

Fire company emblems
Fire company emblems.
Goodwill and amateur firefighters were not enough, though. Franklin suggested a "Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend all Fires with it whenever they happen."

For the February 4, 1735 issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin sent an anonymous letter to his own newspaper entitled Protection of Towns from Fire. Writing as an "old citizen" he admonished:

In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I would advise 'em to take care how they suffer living Coals in a full Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down Stairs, unless in a Warmingpan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into Chinks and make no Appearance until Midnight; when your Stairs being in Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows, and hazard your Necks to avoid being oven-roasted.

He further urged that chimney sweeps should be licensed by the city and be held responsible for their work. He noted that a neighboring city (Boston), "a club or society of active men belonging to each fie engine, whose business is to attend all fires with it whenever they happen." He noted that via practice and regular meetings, the firefighters' skills improved.

Leather bucket
Leather bucket used to fight fires.
Under Franklin's goading, a group of thirty men came together to form the Union Fire Company on December 7, 1736. Their equipment included "leather buckets, with strong bags and baskets (for packing and transporting goods), which were to be brought to every fire. The blaze battlers met monthly to talk about fire prevention and fire-fighting methods. Homeowners were mandated to have leather fire-fighting buckets in their houses.

Union Fire Co marker
Other men were desirous of joining the Union, but were urged to form their own companies so the city would be better protected.

Within a short span of time, Philadelphians witnessed the birth of the Heart-in-Hand, the Britannia, the Fellowship, as well as several other fire companies.

Thanks to the matchless leadership of Benjamin Franklin, the dire fear of fires expired in Philadelphia which became one of safest city's in the world in terms of fire damage.

Historic fire engine

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Next stop:Franklin Square

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