Fires and Fights: Firefighting Iconography

The White Turtle & the Red Crab of Philadelphia serves as a whimsical new addition to the Library Company’s collection of firefighting certificates, satires, and photographic views. These documents are a window into the types of engines, uniforms, and mascots associated with 19th-century firefighting. The pseudonymous artist and printer of this new acquisition remain a mystery, although one might guess that they served in a volunteer fire company, as did lithographers James Queen and Nathaniel Currier. Perhaps “Priff” or “Jonas” was a member of the “winning” Northern Liberties Hose Company (White Turtle), whose fire house at New Market Street above Coates Street was just a few blocks from the Lafayette Hose Company (Red Crab) at Fourth Street above Brown Street.

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In foreground, a group of men strain to pull fire equipment along cobblestone street lined with buildings. Another similar group visible in background. Pigs and pedestrian scurry away

Jonas (pseud.). The White Turtle & The Red Crab of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Published and printed by Priff [pseud.], ca. 1852). Lithograph, hand-colored. Acquired from the Jay T. Snider Collection.

This print, later reproduced in a late-19th-century Jacob Reed & Son uniform manufactory advertisement, shows the moment the two companies met racing to a bonfire near Eastern State Penitentiary during a weekend of fires throughout the city. Despite the jovial nature portrayed in this event, the pig was not the only casualty of this competition on July 25, 1852, between the hose companies, both incorporated in 1840.

Firefighters fought not only blazes, but each other. Criticism of the violent behavior, staged fires, and competitive races had long plagued the volunteer companies of the mid-19th century. Absent from this scene was the Northern Liberties company member stabbed by a Lafayette member, a violent altercation repeated a few months later when several volunteers were severely injured.

Group of men wearing similar hats and belt buckles pose with wheeled steam engine in front of a brick building. Dog sits on top of steam engine

Robert Newell.[William Penn Hose Company steam engine and fire fighters in front of the company fire station on Frankford Road near Franklin Avenue, Philadelphia] (Philadelphia, 1865). Albumen print on stereograph mount. Bequest of John A. McAllister.

Group of men, some wearing firemen's hats, and boys pose with wheeled fire equipment in front of a brick building. Train tracks run in foreground

Robert Newell.[Hand-in-Hand Fire Company fire fighters and steam engine in front of the company fire station at Ninth Street above Poplar Street, Philadelphia] (Philadelphia, ca. 1865). Albumen print on stereograph mount. Bequest of John A. McAllister.

Two horses and a few men pose with a wagon in front of a brick building. Wagon embellished with fire company name and painted images on side

Robert Newell. [Goodwill Fire Company's horse-drawn ambulance in front of the company fire station on Race Street below Broad Street, Philadelphia]. (Philadelphia, 1865). Albumen print on carte-de-visite mount. Bequest of John A. McAllister.


Philadelphia volunteer firemen also used the medium of photography to disseminate a positive image of their vocation. Photographer Robert Newell issued a series of cartes-de-visite and stereograph views of Philadelphia fire companies during the 1860s. Although the firemen served as a built-in market for these views, the general public also purchased the photographs for use in albums or viewing in a stereoviewer. These photographs show the members, stations, and equipment of the William Penn Fire Company (est. 1830), the Hand-in-Hand Fire Company (est. 1741), and the Goodwill Fire Company (est. 1802). The company mascots and spectators posed among the members with their steam engine, hose carriage, and ambulance add to the informal nature of the scenes.

Cartoon with text and images mocking firefighters showing them drinking, lazing about, and carousing

A Paid Fire Department. As It Is Likely To Be Under the Contract System (Philadelphia: J. L. Magee, Publisher, 305 Walnut St., 1853). Lithograph.


A volunteer fire fighting system based initially on bucket brigades (and later hooks) and an engine had served the city since the late 17th century. In 1736, the first volunteer company, the Union Fire Company, was formed at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, and for nearly 150 years the volunteer system operated until an ordinance for a paid department finally passed in 1870. In early 1853, public meetings were held to discuss the reform movement for a paid department, which had been spearheaded for nearly a decade by the insurance trade. The movement became a point of public debate ripe for satire. Not surprisingly, the volunteer companies opposed the change, and lithographer John L. Magee, possibly a volunteer himself, “presented” their side. Portraying members of a paid fire department as old, apathetic, drunk, and inept hacks, the message of the cartoon proved persuasive. It took nearly another two decades for the establishment of a paid department.