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Fire Buckets in 18th Century Boston

Fire buckets have been popular with collectors and owners of period homes for a long time. They represent a time long before most towns had established and well-equipped fire departments ready to respond at a moment’s notice to a house or shop fire, when people relied on their neighbors to come to their aid. The risk for catastrophe from fire was great. A single stand-alone house could be consumed in minutes. In towns, fire in densely populated neighborhoods could quickly result in the destruction of dozens of buildings.

Between 1630 and 1700 Boston experienced at least six major fires that destroyed well over 200 buildings. In 1712, the town began establishing fire wards, men whose duty it was to patrol the streets at night on the lookout for fires and to sound an alarm when a blaze was spotted. As early as 1653, the Town of Boston had its first fire engine. By 1715, the town had six engines ready to serve the community. But because early fire engines had a limited water capacity and there was no town-wide plumbing infrastructure to allow immediate access to additional water, long lines of people passing buckets was the principal means of keeping engines supplied. When fire engines were not available, buckets of water were thrown directly onto burning structures.

In towns like Boston, fire buckets could be found in the majority of houses and businesses. Constructed of leather with leather-covered rope handles, fire buckets held around two gallons of water and were typically owned in pairs. Rolled up in each bucket would also have been a large coarse linen bag used to quickly gather up and remove possessions from a burning structure. Fire buckets and bags were typically the property of individual people and their names and bucket number were painted on the side.  When called to service the buckets and bags would pass through many hands in a long line of people passing buckets to feed the fire engine or dump directly onto the flames. Once the fire was extinguished, the name written on the buckets and bags allowed their owners to retrieve them and ensure that they were ready for use in the next emergency.

Pair of early 19th century fire buckets with original linen salvage bags

Most fire buckets were likely purchased from merchant craftsmen who specialized in leather goods, or wholesalers who imported wares from England. The earliest reference I could find for the sale of fire buckets in Boston comes from a 1743 newspaper where an advertisement from an unnamed merchant simply states, “A Parcel of Choice Fire Buckets to be sold.” While there were certainly a number of merchants in Boston from whom fire buckets could be purchased, few seem to have advertised in the papers. In addition, it is very rare to find a mark or signature on a fire bucket that identifies its maker. As a result, the identities of nearly all of the makers of fire buckets around Boston have been lost.  One exception to this are the buckets produced by John Fenno Jr.

John Fenno Jr. was born in Boston on May 4, 1732, to John Fenno (1707-1790) and Hannah Capen (1712-1792).  He married Katherine Hodges (1729-1810) on April 4, 1755, and together they had six children. Fenno’s father worked in the leather business and it is likely that John learned the leatherworking trade from him. While it is not clear exactly when John Fenno Jr. began working on his own, an advertisement in the Massachusetts Centinel in April 1785 indicates that by then his business was well established. “John Fenno, jun. Hereby gives notice to those gentlemen who are so well disposed as to enter into Fire Societies, and all others, that he continues to make Leather Buckets, strong and neat, of a large size, and handsome shape. — Hoses for Engines, and Hoses for the West-India use — Boots, Gloeshoes, and Shoes of all sizes, at the sign of the Leather Bucket, next door to Dr. Samuel Curtis’s at the South End.” Fortunately for historians and collectors, Fenno’s fire buckets are identifiable as he marked his work with a rectangular stamp reading “I. FENNO” on the back of his buckets near the stitched seam.

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1787 his house burned and Fenno was forced to relocate his business as testified by a newspaper advertisement in May of that year. This advertisement is interesting in that beyond the text describing what he makes and sells, it illustrates two of his principal products; shoes and buckets. Over the next several years his business continued to flourish and he expanded his offerings to include hoses for firefighting equipment and other uses. In October 1794 Fenno placed the following advertisement in the Columbian Centinel: “John Fenno, Informs the Public, that he continues to make Leather Buckets, after the best manner, at the sign of the Bucket, Orange Street, South end, Boston. A number of Buckets may be had on the shortest notice.  Said Fenno makes Hoses for Engines, and Hose for the conveyance of Oil and Molasses on board vessels.” Fenno apparently continued his bucket-making business until his death on December 5, 1812.

Advertisement for John Fenno in 1787 with an illustration of a fire bucket

John Fenno’s surviving work shows that he was an accomplished artisan.  His buckets are typically decorated with a central device illustrating a fire company symbol or dramatic scene of burning buildings. That decorative element is often located directly above a painted banner or ribbon inscribed with the owner’s name and directly below the bucket’s number “No. 1” or No. 2” painted near the rim. His clientele is known to have included Boston’s most prominent citizens, including Thomas Hancock (1769-1841), son of General Ebenezer Hancock and nephew of the famous John Hancock. A rare receipt preserved in the Hancock Family Papers, Baker Library, Harvard Business School, documents the purchase of a pair of fire buckets from John Fenno on November 6, 1797.

Invoice for the purchase of a pair of fire buckets by Thomas Hancock from John Fenno, November 6, 1797

Remarkably, we have insight into just what those buckets may have looked like. Just three months later, in early February 1798, a fire broke out at the Federal Street (or Boston) Theatre and Thomas Hancock turned out to help fight the fire. In the confusion one of his two buckets was lost and he placed the following advertisement in the Boston Gazette on February 5: “Lost At the late Fire, at the Elegant Theatre, a Bucket – in a Garter, Thomas Hancock, No. 2, Device – Houses on Fire and Engines playing on an elegant Edifice, supported by the Cap of Liberty, and two fine large bright Bed Keys.” Whether or not the bucket was returned is unknown, but the advertisement offers a rare first-hand description of how the fire buckets of Boston’s wealthiest citizens were decorated.

Advertisement describing a fire bucket lost by Thomas Hancock in early February 1798

Thomas Hancock’s elaborately painted fire buckets were not the norm in 18th century Boston. The vast majority of citizens’ fire buckets were very simply adorned. In most cases the decoration was limited to a name and number. Rarely did they include a date or decorative device.  In most cases, the buckets were black, although evidence from 18th century sources and surviving examples show that they were occasionally painted colors such as red, green, yellow, or blue. Fire buckets were, after all, utilitarian objects meant to haul water to put out a fire. They were not normally intended to be decorative features of a household.

18th century sources describing the appearance or decoration of fire buckets are very scarce. What do survive are advertisements in newspapers posted by owners seeking the return of lost buckets after fires. The following list was compiled from Boston newspapers spanning the entirety of the 18th century. While no such list can ever be 100% complete, it does represent a vast cross section of the fire buckets owned by 18th century Bostonians.

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Fire bucket references in Boston newspapers, 1700-1799:

1743, April 19, “A Parcel of Choice Fire Buckets to be sold”

1743, December 8, “Lost the Fourth of November last, at the Fire on Mr. Peter Oliver’s Wharff, a Leather Bucket belonging to Jabez Hunt, mark’d No. 2 1726.”

1747, December 24, “Lost at the Fire at the Town House, a Leather Bucket mark’d No. 2. Jos. Grant.”

1747, December 29, “Lost when the Townhouse was burnt, the beginning of this Month, a Leather Bucket, marked William Clough, No. 2.”

1748, March 28, “Lost, when the Chimney was on Fire near the Rev. Mr. Checkley’s Meeting-House, a Leather Bucket, mark’d No. 1 S.Hill.”

1748, April 19, “Taken up after the Fire at the Court-House, a Leather Bucket.”

1748, June 7, “Lost at the Fire near the King’s Chappel on Election Day, two Buckets, the Owner’s Name thereon.”

1748, November 3, “A Fire Bucket mark’d A. Adams, No 1. was lost at the late Fire in this Town: Whoever has taken up the same, ‘tis desired they will bring it to the Owner Mr. Abijah Adams in Marlborough Street, or inform him where he may have it.”

1750, November 15, “A Fire-Bucket mark’d A.Adams was lost at the Fire at Samuel Well’s Esq.”

1750, November 27, “A Fire-Bucket mark’d W. Holmes, was lost at the late fire at Samuel Weles’s.”

1752, March 19, “A Fire-Bucket mark’d T. Allen, No. 2 was lost at the late Fire on Wentworth’s Wharf.”

1752, March 27, “[William Davis] lost a Bucket at the late Fire near Draw-Bridge, with his Name painted thereon No. 1.”

1753, February 26, “Lost at the late Fire in Marlborough Street, a Bucket mark’d Benj. Austin.”

1753, August 7, “Lost at the late Fire on Bronsdon’s Wharffe, a Leather Bucket, mark’d T. Cushing No. 2.”

1753, August 28, “Lost at the late Fire a Leather Bucket mark’d S. Barret, No. 2.  Whoever shall Bring said Bucket to Samuel Barret, Sailmaker, shall be rewarded for their Trouble.”

1754, April 25, “A Fire-Bucket mark’d Thos Leverett, No. 2. has been missing since the Fire last Week.”

1754, April 29, “Lost at the Fire at New-Boston, on Thursday the 18th Instant, a Leather Bucket marked Gamal. Wallis, No. 2.”

1754, May 2, “Two Bucket, one mark’d L. Jarvis, the other B. Parker, as also a Bag, mark’d B.P. have been missing since the late Fire at New-Boston.”

1754, May 2, “Lost at the Fire at New-Boston, on Thursday last, a Leather Bucket mark’d Ios. Callender.”

1758, May 4, “A Fire-Bucket, with Wm. Hyslop’s Name on it, has been missing since the late Fire, at the South Part of Town.”

1759, December 17, “Lost At the late Fire at New-Boston, a Fire-Bucket, marked Edward Davis, No. 2.”

1759, December 27, “Lost at the late Fire at New-Boston, in November last, a Fire-Bucket mark’d Thos. Greenough No. 1.”

1759, December 27, “A Fire-Bucket, mark’d S. Edwards No. 2, was lost at the fire near Oliver’s Dock in November last.”

1766, February 10, “Lost at the late Fire, a Leather Bucket, mark’d Wm. Hickling, No. 2”

1767, February 9, Lost at the Fire on Tuesday Night last, a Fire Bucket, mark’d Wm. Bant, No. 2 1763.”

1767, February 16, “Lost at the late Fire, two Leather Buckets, mark’d Lemuel Cox, No. 1 & No. 2, painted green.”

1767, February 16, “Lost at the late Fire seven Buckets and 2 Baggs mark’d as follows, viz. Jonathan Cary and John Rogers 1 Bag & 1 Bucket, Robert Hewes, Levi Jennings and Joseph Eustis, Buckets.”

1767, February 19, “Lost at the late Fire, a Leather Bucket, mark’d Timo Newell, No. 2.”

1767, February 23, “Lost at the late Fire, a Leather Bucket, mark’d Hotn Perkins, No. 2.”

1767, March 2, “Said [Edmund] Quincy lost a Bucket at the last Fire, Whoever will return it to the Owner, shall have One Dollar Reward.”

1767, March 5, “Lost at the late Fire, two Leather Buckets, one mark’d Mo’s Belcher Bass No. 2. – the other Abijah Adams, No. 2.

1767, March 16, “Lost at the late Fire, a Bucket and a Bag marked Joseph Scott.”

1767, October 5, “Lost at the fire in Beer-Lane, a Leather Bucket, mark’d W. Hickling.”

1767, November 23, “Lost at the late Fire on the 5th November Inst. A Leather Bucke, No. 2, mark’d Wm. Hinkling.”

1768, March 3, “Taken up in the Mill-Pond some Time since, a Fire Bucket, mark’d No. 1 I — 1740.  As the Owner’s Name is erased, any Person producing No. 2 of the same Date, to match it, and paying Charges, will be entitled to it.”

1769, February 2, “Missing since the Fire on Monday Night, A Leather Bucket, Marked Jno Fleeming, No. 1.”

1769, February 20, “a Leather Bucket, marked H. Laughton, No. 1. has been missing since the late Fire.”

1769, February 27, “Lost, At the late Fire in Queen-Street, A Leather Bucket, Marked Joseph Scott.”

1769, May 11, “A Leather Bucket, mark’d Wm. Gooch, No. 1. was Lost at a Fire about a Fortnight since, at the South-End.”

1769, May 25, “A Leather Fire-Bucket mark’d J. Greene, No. 6, 1762. has been missing since the Fire at the Gaol.”

1770, April 6, “[Elijah] Adams boot and Shoe-Maker Next Door to the King’s Arms at the South Side of the Market, Boston. Takes this Method to acquaint the Public, That he… makes and sells… Fire Buckets.”

1772, April 13, “Lost at the late Fire in King-Street, a Leather Bucket, marked W. McNeil, No. 2.”

1773, January 4, “Lost at the late Fire, a Leather Bucket, with the Owners Name thereon, James Ferreter.”

1773, February 8, “A Leather Fire-Bucket was lost at the late Fire by the Roap Walk, mark’d John Webb.”

1773, March 22, Lost at the late Fire at Mr. Ivis’s, a Leather Bucket, mark’d Wm. Homes”

1773, April 12, “Lost at the Fire on the 4th Instant, a Leather Bucket, mark’d F. Green, No. 2.”

1774, November 15, “Lost at the late Fire in Salem, a leather Bucket, marked E. Gerry, No. 1.”

1774, November 15, “Lost at the late Fore in Salem, 2 Buckets marked A. Rand.”

1782, September 30, “Lost At the late Fire at the North end, a red Bucket, mark’d Thos Wadsworth.”

1782, October 24, “Lost, at the late Fire at the North-End, a red Bucket, marked Joshua Loring.”

1782, November 21, “A Fire-Bucket was lost at the late Fire, painted with the Subscriber’s Name [John Williams].”

1783, February 20, “Lost at the late fire at the mills, two pair of buckets, mark’d Thomas Bailey, No. 1 and 2, and William Cunningham, No. and 2.”

1783, August 25, “Lost at the late Fire, a Leather Fire Bucket, almost new, the Name William Gale.”

1783, August 28, “Lost, at the late Fire, a Leather Bucket, mark’d Norton Brailsford, No. 1, Union Society.”

1785, April 16, “John Fenno, jun. Hereby gives notice to those gentlemen who are so well disposed as to enter into Fire Societies, and all others, that he continues to make Leather Buckets, strong and neat, of a large size, and handsome shape. — Hoses for Engines, and Hoses for the West-India use — Boots, Gloeshoes, and Shoes of all sizes, at the sign of the Leather Bucket, next door to Dr. Samuel Curtis’s at the South End.”

1786, April 13, “Lost at the Fire on Tuesday last, a new Fire Bucket, mark’d James D. Griffith.”

1786, April 27, “Lost at the late Fire, A Leather Bucket, marked R. Walker, 1777, No. 1.”

1787, April 23, “Lost, at the late Fire, A Bucket and Bag, marked with the name of Thos Beals.”

1787, April 25, “Lost, at the late Fire, A Fire Bucket, marked Henry Smith.”

1787, April 26, “Lost, at the late Fire, A Fire Bucket, marked William Donnison.
1787, April 28, “Lost, at the late Fire, A Fire Bucket, marked W. Shattuck, No. 2.”

1787, April 28, “I Will reward any person for returning my Bucket, lost at the late Fire, Wm. Pierce.”

1787, April 30, “Lost, at the late Fire, A Fire Bucket and Bed Winch.  The Bucket marked Thomas English.
1787, April 30, “Lost, at the late Fire, A Fire Bucket and Bag, marked Andw Cunningham, No. 2.”

1787, May 2, “Lost, at the late Fire, One Fire Bucket, marked Joseph Chapman, No. 1.”

1787, May 19, “Lost, A Fire Bucket, marked John C. Jones.”

1794, August 5, “Lost at the late Fire – A Bucket, marked Tho. K. Jones.”

1794, August 6, “Lost, at the late Fire, a leather Bucket, marked William Bird, (No. 2).”

1794, August 6, “Lost at the late fire, two fire Buckets, marked Levi Pease; two do. and one Bag, marked Joseph Cotton; one Bucket, marked Solomon Cotton; one do. marked John Lovering; one do. marked Elisha Wild, one do. marked Robert Smallpiece; one do. and one Bag, marked John Lane.”

1794, August 6, “Lost, at the late Fire, a Bucket, marked B. Russell, No. 2.”

1794, August 7, “Lost, at the late fire, a Bucket, marked S. Francis.”

1794, August 7, “Lost at the late Fire, one Bucket, marked John Coolidge, No. 2.”

1794, August 7, “Lost at the late Fire, two Buckets, marked Wm. Homes.”

1794, August 8, “Lost at the late Fire, a Fire-Bucket, marked John Kennedy.”

1794, August 8, “Lost at the late Fire, a Bucket, inscribed ‘Alexander Young’.”

1794, August 9, “Lost at the late Fire – One Fire Bucket and two Bags, marked Jona. Amory, jun.”

1794, August 9, “Lost, at the late Fire, a Bucket, marked E. Tuckerman.”

1794, August 20, “Lost at the late Fire… a Fire-Bucket and Bag, marked with the subscriber’s name [Daniel Sargent, jun.].”

1794, August 23, “Lost – 1Bucket, marked Edward Blanchard, two bags marked J. Cunningham, on do. marked D.W. Bradlee.”

1794, August 23, “Lost, at the late fire – a Bucket, marked B. Fessenden, and a Bed-Key.”

1794, August 27, “Lost, at the late fire – a Fire-Bag, marked W.B. Eaton, No. 33.”

1794, August 27, “Lost, at the late fire – a Bucket, marked “Josiah Brown.”

1794, August, 27, “Lost at the late fire, a Bucket, marked J. Hunnewell.”

1794, September 3, “Lost, at the late fire, a Bucket marked Robert Jenkins.”

1794, October 4, “John Fenno, Informs the Public, that he continues to make Leather Buckets, after the best manner, at the sign of the Bucket, Orange Street, South end, Boston.  A number of Buckets may be had on the shortest notice.  Said Fenno makes Hoses for Engines, and Hose for the conveyance of Oil and Molasses on board vessels.”

1795, February 23, “Lost, At the late Fire at Fort-Hill, a Bucket, marked R. Gray.  Whoever will give information of it, or return it to Robert Gray, in Back Street, shall be handsomely rewarded for their Pains.”

1796, March 19, “Lost – At the recent fire, in State-Street, on Bucket, marked Samuel Wallis.”

1796, March 23, “Lost – At the late fire in State-Street, A Bucket, belonging to the Subscriber [John Tucker].”

1796, November 12, “Lost – At the late fire in Charlestown, a Fire Bucket, belonging to George Davidson – painted blue with a gilt Star, and the owners name.”

1797, March 3, “Lost at the late Fire – a Leather Bucket, with the Subscriber’s name thereon [John Cushing].”

1797, March 11, “Lost – At the late fire of the Robe Walks, a “Fire Bucket,” marked with the Subscriber’s name at full length [George Watson].”

1797, March 15, “Lost! – At the fire in Bacon-street, on Sunday morning, one Bucket, marked No. 2.”

1797, November 29, “Painting and Gilding, In their various branches, executed in a novel and peculiar manner, by Daniel Bartling, from Philadelphia, who proposed fixing his residence in this town. In addition to the common modes of Gilding, he performs the following Ornamental Articles, Viz… Painting…fire buckets ornamented.”

1797, December 2, “Lost! At the late fire in Fore-strt. a fire Bucket, marked Richard Chamberlain.”

1797, December 7, “Lost, at the late Fire.  A Fire Bucket, No. 1, owner’s name David W. Bradlee.”

1797, December 9, “Lost!  At the late fire in Ann-strt.  A fire Bucket, with the owners name on it [Samuel Thaxter].”

1797, December 9, “Lost!  At the late fire, a Bucket, marked Gideon Baty.”

1797, December 9, “Lost!  At the late fire, a Bucket, painted Samuel Hastings, No. 2.”

1797, December 9, “Lost!  At the late fire, two Buckets, marked J. Allen, No. 1 and 2.”

1797, December 9, “Lost!  At the late fire in Ann street, one Fire Bucket, P. Wentworth, No. 17, Union Society.”

1797, December 19, “Lost, at the late fire in Fore-street, a Bucket, marked William Leach.”

1798, February 5, “Lost At the late Fire, at the Elegant Theatre, a Bucket – in a Garter, Thomas Hancock, No. 2, Device – Houses on Fire and Engines playing on an elegant Edifice, supported by the Cap of Liberty, and two fine large bright Bed Keys.”

1798, December 10, “Lost, At the late Fire in Roxbury, A Bucket, belonging to the Hancock Fire Club, marked Ebenezer Smith, No. 2.”

1799, February 14, “Lost, – at the late Fire!  A New Leather Bucket, with the Subscriber’s Name on it [Ebenezer Clough].”

1799, June 18, “Lost – At the late fire in Newbury-Street, a Bucket, marked Caleb Gibbs, No. 2.”

1799, November 15, “Lost, At the late Fire, a Fire Bucket, with the subscriber’s name [Jona. Dean], belonging to the Social Club.”

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