"The Life of a Fireman: The Metropolitan
Two series by Currier and Ives, "Life of
a Fireman" and "American Fireman," idealized
the common man as hero; nearly all fire brigades were voluntary
until late in the century. Firemen served as icons "of
American independence, initiative, pluck, and spirit"
(16) ; Americans wanted
to believe that they, too, embodied this attitude.
Fires were a constant danger in nineteenth-century
America. A blaze on the prairie could rage for days, and in
the city, several fires a day were not uncommon. (17)
A fire driven by "hurricane-force winds in 1871, e.g.,
consumed more than 1,000,000 acres of farms, forests, sawmills,
and small towns of Wisconsin and upper Michigan in the same
day as the great
Chicago fire." (18)
The latter fire left approximately 200 people
dead, 100,000 homeless, and $200 million in property destroyed,
along with countless public and private documents. More than
2,000 acres burned. As a female, Catholic, Irish immigrant,
the famed "Mrs. O'Leary" whose cow allegedly kicked
over a bucket and started the inferno, was a perfect scapegoat
In the crowded cities, going to fires evolved
into a kind of spectator sport. Songs about firefighting and
reenactments of fires at circuses and fairs were popular. Nevertheless,
firemen and citizens frequently lost their lives in the conflagrations,
which consumed factories, warehouses, homes, and entire cities.
City slums were often constructed of miles and miles of wooden
cottages and tenement houses, crowded with poor immigrants.
Bryan F. LeBeau points out in Currier &
Ives: America Imagined that the firm never published a
series on policemen. The corrupt police forces, especially those
in New York City, had a reputation for brutality and for demanding
tributes from prostitutes, gamblers, and liquor dealers (306).
They simply could not be coated with a sentimental glaze, and
there were no halcyon
days to look back on.