First Volunteer Firemen in America

US #971 was issued for the 300th anniversary of this event and pictures Peter Stuyvesant.

On October 4, 1648, the first volunteer fire department in North America was established in what would become New York City. 

In America’s early colonial days, fires were all too common, especially in the large cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  As a result, these cities made major strides in fire prevention that saved countless lives and homes. 

US #971 – Classic First Day Cover

One of the most notable early events occurred on October 4, 1648.  On that day, New Netherland Director-General Peter Stuyvesant appointed four men to act as “fire wardens” in New Amsterdam – now known as New York City.  The wardens inspected chimneys and administered fines to people who had not kept their chimneys swept clear to prevent fires.  The money gained from the fines was used to purchase fire-fighting equipment such as ladders and buckets.  These men are considered America’s first volunteer firemen.

US #971 – Plate Block First Day Cover

The city’s government later selected eight citizens to put on “Rattle Watch.”  These volunteers patrolled the city streets at night to keep watch for fires.  If they saw a fire, they would spin their wooden rattles to wake up the citizens.  They would then oversee the townspeople as they organized bucket brigades to put out the fires.

US #971 – Fleetwood First Day Cover

Decades later, America’s first paid firefighters were hired in Boston, Massachusetts.  The city had suffered a few major fires over the years.  Finally, in 1678, they hired 13 men to fight fires in the city.  Following another major fire in 1711, concerned citizens created the Mutual Fire Societies.  These early groups served as social and protective associations and established the pattern for organized volunteer firefighting groups of the future. 

US #1908 pictures an 1860s era fire pumper.

Benjamin Franklin, who had witness some of Boston’s fires, was disturbed by the fires in Philadelphia after he moved there.  He wrote extensively about the dangers of these fires and called for organized fire protection in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette.  Following another bad fire in 1736, he created The Union Fire company, which is considered America’s first volunteer fire department.  His idea caught on and more fire companies formed throughout the city.  Each one bought their own equipment and placed it around the city for use.

US #2264 pictures a fire engine from the early 1900s.

Several founding fathers and notable early Americans served as volunteer firefighters including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Aaron Burr, James Buchanan, and Millard Fillmore. 

America’s first government-run fire departments began to appear in the mid-1800s.  Cincinnati, Ohio was the first city to have the first professional fire department composed entirely of full-time employees.  Around the same time, Cincinnati also tested the first practical steam powered fire engine. 

Today, the US has over 29,700 fire departments employing more than 1.2 million firefighters.  Of those, about 745,000 are volunteer firefighters.

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  1. Great article. This is the stamp that launched me into stamp collecting. A collector gave it to me when I was young. I just retired after 32 years from the fire service. Still my favorite stamp!

  2. I agree. Another timely reminder of how much we owe those willing to run into danger to save the rest of us when necessary. Thanks Mystic.

  3. Another piece of ‘edutainment’. When I was a kid we were given ‘weekly readers’ on Friday afternoons in class. These were newsprint ‘newspapers’ for us illustrated with kid appropriate articles and best of all we got to take them home. This is what these daily Mystic Stamap ‘This Day In History’ reminds me of, a daily treat to finish one’s coffee over!
    I want a tee shirt that says ‘I know history..I read my Mystic Stamp ‘This Day in History!’

  4. Couldn’t agree more with Bei Ruetten. I loved my Weekly Reader. You are right. The Mystic ‘This Day in History’ is just like that. 💕

    1. Cincinnatians are still well-served by their first professionalfire department. I had reason to receive their help recently. The ambulances bear ‘First In The Nation’ as a proud reminder. If near Cincinnati, visit the downtown Cincinnati Fire Museum.

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