J.R. has a vintage (1910-1920) firefighter’s brass medal, composed of a pin bar in the shape of an elongated bugle, from which dangles a miniature fireman’s helmet (as the headgear was termed when patented), accurately rendered.
Often these were given as awards at fireman’s conventions, which is what they were called. Please forgive my non-PC use of the word “fireman.” Now that I’ve explained about the conventions, the rest of this article will call these noble folks “firefighters.”
The symbolism of the trade has deep meaning — and those symbols are all contained in this little 3.5 by- 2-inch medal.
The shape of the medal is the shape of an American firefighter’s helmet, pioneered by a New York City luggage maker named Henry T. Gratacap, who developed a structural support and a process of treating leather that made symbolic and functional history.
His helmet in the 1830s had a long rear brim, called a duckbill or beavertail, to prevent water down the firefighter’s back and a front shield with symbolic elements above the eyebrow, surmounted by a crest top
The crown of the helmet was built from six to eight “combs” or beams that formed a strong defense against falling debris and provided added durability. The crest top was used in a pinch to break windows.
By 1889, J. R. Hopkins patented the firefighter’s helmet on July 18, 1889.
This little medal features engravings of four emblems of the firefighter. In full-sized badges and helmets, we often see these symbols inside an eight-sided cross called the Maltese Cross or sometimes St. Florian’s Cross.
The Maltese cross dates from the period of the Crusades, when the Knights of St John defended themselves against firestorms and firebombs. The Knights were distinguished by their red capes, which also function in a pinch to beat down a flame. Hence the tradition of red for firefighters.
St Florian was a 3rd-4th century Christian commander in the Roman army, who organized one of the first firefighting forces in Noricum and was martyred for his faith: He is the patron saint of firefighters.
The concept of a paid municipal firefighting force is relatively new. American firefighters were volunteer forces from the Colonial days onward, until 1853 when Columbus, Ohio organized a paid force.
British firefighting began to be organized on a municipal level as early as 1824 at James Braidwood’s Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment. Braidwood was asked by the city of London to set up a similar municipal organization there.
Braidwoodl died an interesting but tragic death: British firefighters were mainly recruits from the Royal Navy, and when on duty expected their ration of rum. Braidwell died handing out flammable rum.
When grouped together on a helmet of a badge, the grouping of symbols unique to firefighters is called “the Scramble”. Breaking down the symbols on this little medal, the helmet bears images that symbolize preparedness. We find the nine-rung ladder. The nine rungs symbolize the connectedness and durability of the individual (we all originate in a process of nine months), and the ladder, our resourcefulness.
We see a pike, once used by ancient firefighters to pull down masonry walls.
We see a 19th-cehtury style firehose, and we see a bugle.
Another elongated bugle acts as the pin bar that attached the medal to the lapel. The bugle is a symbol of leadership. Before loudspeakers or radios, the leader of the fire brigade joined his forces and directed them with a bugle.
In some “scrambles,” multiple bugles symbolize the rank of a firefighter. The more bugles, the more senior.
Strangely enough, the early history of firefighting was not so noble. Under Marcus Licinius Crassus in third-century Rome, a fire brigade was formed that would rush to the scene.
From here, intense negotiation would follow with the building’s owner as to the cost of the brigade. British firefighters, like American firefighters, were volunteers — that is, until the Great Fire of 1666, when Fire Insurance Companies were developed that issued special policies and badges. If your building was not insured by a specific company, too bad.
No less than George Washington in Alexandria, Va., established the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company, and George also gave them their first fire engine. He acted as a volunteer as well.
Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in establishing the first fire department in Philadelphia in 1763, but on the whole fire brigades in both England and America were obligated to private insurance companies.
In Santa Barbara we love our firefighters; the market for such a medal is wide and active. This small trinket would sell for $100 today.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.