American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

Firemen
Firemen put out a city blaze.
"The Life of a Fireman: The Metropolitan System."

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 for the Chicago fire. (19)

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.

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American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

Site created by Marcy McDonald, American Studies, UVA. Last modified: July 30, 2005. E-mail: asgrp@virginia.edu

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