Originally published in 1992.
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Keepers of the Flame
The Role of Fire in American Culture 1775â?"1925
By Margaret Hindle Hazen, Robert M. Hazen
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Heritage of Flame
The Europeans who colonized America during the seventeenth century arrived with optimism, determination, and fire. Unlike the fire-worshiping empire builders of antiquity, however, these no-nonsense American settlers mostly ignored ceremony as they passed the torch to the New World. There was work to be done, and fire provided the most potent and reliable energy source to accomplish that work.
These migrating fire builders could hardly have picked a better starting point for their endeavors than the east coast of North America. "Here is good living for those that love good Fires," exulted Francis Higginson in 1630. An Englishman accustomed to fuel shortages, Higginson could barely contain his enthusiasm as he eyed the seemingly endless forests of New England: "Though it bee here somewhat cold in the winter, yet here we have plenty of Fire to warme us, and that a great deale cheaper then they sel Billets and Faggots in London." Even these claims apparently fell short of the glorious truth, for the writer quickly corrected himself. "Nay, all Europe," he stated categorically, "is not able to afford so great Fires as New-England."
Despite increases in population and a corresponding decrease in fuel supplies over the years, this early fascination with "great Fires" endured. Indeed, fire power, intensifying with each new wave of immigration, ultimately transformed the continent. Colonists harnessed the energy of the flame to cook their food, heat their homes, and light their way at night. Following the example of the indigenous peoples, they also hunted game and cleared the land with fire. Early iron- and glassworkers relied on the energy of fire, as did coopers, tanners, tinsmiths, dyers, chemists, shipwrights, and most other craftsmen. Tobacco, the money crop that saved Virginia, depended on fire both for curing the leaves and for releasing the benefits of the weed.
This is not to say that early Americans rejected other energy sources as they scrambled to dominate the New World. In addition to chemical energy, in the form of animal and human muscle power, colonists harnessed waterpower to operate mills and to work the bellows at ironworks. Wind power, which had transported the newcomers to America in the first place, continued to propel boats and, more rarely, activated pumps, mills, and the occasional railroad car.
Nevertheless, it was fire—that mystical, magical tool of antiquity—that energized the majority of domestic and commercial activities during the colonial period and that by the nineteenth century had become a leitmotif of the country's life. "For, Lo! We live in an Iron Age—/ In the age of Steam and Fire!" wrote a poet who was mesmerized by the fire-powered steam engines that by the 1850s had begun to revolutionize American transportation, agriculture, and industry. Other types of fires animated diverse sectors of society simultaneously. Gas fires glowed in the cities, campfires dotted the prairie, and blacksmiths' coals burned brightly in almost every settlement between. Counterbalancing these restless flames of progress, meanwhile, were legions of "home fires" that, via the fireplace, stove, candle, and lamp, provided the necessary energy to run individual households and nurture domestic life. Americans of the nineteenth century liked to measure their national progress according to a variety of standards—tons of iron and steel produced, miles of railroad tracks laid, and even the number of brass bands "discoursing sweet music." At the foundation of it all, however, lay the proven ability of the population at large to build and manipulate fires.
And the population at large is precisely who was involved. "We all keep Fires," noted Philip Vickers Fithian in a diary entry that referred specifically to the colonial Virginia family with whom he was living but that could have just as easily applied to Americans everywhere. Only rarely does the world of the merchant resemble that of the mechanic, but in the realm of energy production in the pre-electric era, American society had a powerful leveler. Whatever a person's station or sphere—man or woman, adult or child, master or servant—fire was a perpetual fact of life.
The journalistic jottings of generations of Americans give some idea of the extraordinary dimensions of this reality:
Fire looks & feels most welcome; and I observe it makes our children remarkably garrulous & noisy. 
This morning Michael Mick, Jr., put fire in the Furnace. 
Medley and Ella froze themselves playing and singing in cold front room all the songs they knew. I enjoyed it all by the kitchen fire. 
Went out foraging for firewood, &. got enough dry sage brush to start up the fire. 
Fire was such a constant and central concern for most people that it functioned as the man-made counterpart of nature's sun. The day started and ended at the hearth, and much of the work of the intervening hours revolved around the open flame.
On one level, fire maintenance constituted nothing more than a fairly routine, if profoundly time-consuming, chore. Starting a fire could, under ideal circumstances, be amazingly simple. Fires could be built almost anywhere with a bewildering variety of fuels. Both portable and—if properly banked—preservable, fire permitted its users great freedom of mobility as well as limited laxity in technique (one could always borrow a coal from a neighbor). With the introduction of friction matches after 1827, it became possible to start fires almost instantly whenever and wherever needed.
At the same time, however, fire maintenance was a deadly serious business. Even the slightest lapse in caution could precipitate the disastrous transformation of fire from friendly ally to ravaging destroyer. The experience of Mrs. Orsemus Boyd, an army wife stationed in a remote area of Nevada during the late 1860s, illustrates the problem in stark detail. "Home" for the Boyds consisted of the basics: two tents, a bed, and, because winters were brutal, several heating devices. Specifically, "a large stove had been placed in the outer tent, and a huge fireplace built in the inner one. A large pine bunk, forming a double bed, occupied nearly all the spare space, and left only just room enough in front of the fire to seat one's self, and also to accommodate the tiniest shelf for toilet purposes." In such cramped quarters, as Mrs. Boyd explained, it was only a matter of time before fire the benefactor became fire the destroyer:
In our inability to find suitable places for necessary articles, we were apt to use most inappropriate ones. On the occasion referred to, a lighted candle had been placed on the bed, where my husband seated himself without noticing the candle. Soon arose the accustomed smell of burning, and I executed my usual maneuver of turning about in front of the fire to see if my draperies had caught. The odor of burning continued to increase, yet I could find no occasion for it.
The cause, however, was discovered when I leaned over the bed, and saw that a large hole had been burned in the center of Mr. Boyd's only uniform coat. He had been too intent on shielding me to be conscious of his own peril. It was an accident much to be regretted, for our isolation was so complete that any loss, however trifling, seemed irreparable by reason of our remoteness from supplies.
Here, then, in microcosmic form, was the fundamental problem with fire power. The same form of energy that could build a city could destroy it; the heat that sustained life could, in excess, snuff it out. "Water and fire are the two mighty elements ... that form, in some shape or other ... half our woes and half our felicities," intoned a mid-century copywriter. A popular proverb put it more simply: "Fire is a good servant, but a bad master."
There was nothing new in this dichotomy. Ancient mythology referred to it, as did European folktales. But in nineteenth-century America, where wood was so abundant and the drive for expansion so intense, the juxtaposition formed one of the major undercurrents of contemporary life. In town after town and household after household, work fires repeatedly overstepped their boundaries to consume the productions of their masters. When Boyd referred to "the accustomed smell of burning," she was thinking about her own life. Yet she also spoke for the country at large, where the smell of burning was perpetual and where a vigilant citizenry strove incessantly to distinguish between the. sweet scent of progress and the acrid odor of destruction.
Prometheus's Perplexing Gift
The good servant/bad master dichotomy is not the only paradox related to fire usage. According to the nineteenth-century scholar Thomas Bulfinch, Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to mankind "out of pity for their state." But the Titan might well have felt pity for earth's mortals as they tried to make sense of this perpetually confusing and contradictory entity.
Consider, for instance, the fundamental incongruity of fire tending—that fires, though maddeningly difficult to ignite, could also burn with such ferocity as to be almost impossible to extinguish. Fire users learned this exasperating truth at an early age, but familiarity with the concept did not necessarily devalue it through the nineteenth century. References to problems of fire starting and fire stopping crop up in both public and private writings. In Roughing It, for example, Mark Twain satirizes the agonizing process of coaxing a reluctant fire to life, ruthlessly exposing the shortcomings of such ignition devices as pistols ("an art requiring practice and experience, and the middle of a desert at midnight in a snowstorm was not a good place or time for the acquiring of the accomplishment"), rubbing two sticks together ("at the end of half an hour we were thoroughly chilled, and so were the sticks"), and, of course, matches, which, though "lovable and precious, and sacredly beautiful to the eye," are in this case entirely ineffective. But starting a fire is not the only problem to plague the hapless narrator of Twain's tale. The author also introduces the flip side of the question when, without warning, a campfire suddenly goes out of control and creates a "roaring ... popping ... crackling" scene of destruction. The dryness of the ground cover discourages any attempts at suppression, and four hours later the campers are still watching the voracious flames devour the landscape.
Four hours was a long time, but as newspaper articles and other publications hastened to announce, fires could burn much, much longer. "Burning Yet" was the eye-catching headline for a Scientific American account of an urban fire that was still smoldering five months after ignition. Fires that took hold in coal mines or oil wells, where the fuel supply was virtually inexhaustible, could last even longer. In some cases, they smoldered so long that they imparted new meaning to the concept of "perpetual fire." Joseph Husband, a Harvard graduate who spent a year in a midwestern coal mine, published a remarkable account of just such a fire in 1911. Despite the heroic efforts of the miners, it took well over a year to extinguish the fire completely. It is a dramatic story in itself, but some of the impact surely derives from the fact that Husband's readers knew from experience that fires did not always burn so well or so effortlessly.
In truth, fires did not always do much of anything. Loge, the Nordic god of fire is generally depicted as a sly, capricious fellow, and the characterization is perfectly apt. A flame could take many forms and produce a wide range of colors, temperatures, odors, sounds, and intensities. More to the point, it did so regularly and "openly"—in full view of society. The result is a profusion of contradictory fire lore that permeates many aspects of American culture and life. It was not uncommon, for instance, for a single word to be applied to two opposing concepts. Thus, firebag referred to a bag containing kindling implements as well as to a bag used to save property from a blaze. Similarly, a fireman could be either a fire maker or a firefighter, and fire stick could denote either a fuel poker or the fuel itself. Surprisingly, aphorisms ran much the same way. A goat was said to "look like a lady" in candlelight, and yet it was claimed simultaneously that a young girl sitting by a fire or stove risked being transformed into a withered old woman.
A broad interpretation of fire artifacts yields additional perplexities. The chimney, for example, functioned primarily as a vent for the smoke and gases emitted from a hearth fire; but sometimes its connotations were more complex. When smoking gently, it was a symbol of prosperity and comfort; when smoking too much, it became a menacing threat to public health and safety. It was the conduit for the beloved St. Nicholas; yet it was also the mysterious portal for witches, warlocks, and other evil spirits. When built of wood and mud as was common in the early days, a chimney was an ephemeral thing. Its days were clearly numbered, and some communities required homeowners to acquire a long pole to hasten the demise of the flimsy structure in case of fire. Later, with the adoption of brick and stone construction, chimneys became the survivors—often standing blackened and alone to show, as one contemporary put it, that men had "trod this road before us."
Contradictions and complications permeated the world of the firefighter as well. Most intriguing is the fundamental irony that firemen frequently used fire to fight fire. This was true not only in rural areas, where backfires were a favored deterrent to prairie fires, but also in urban centers, where by the second half of the nineteenth century fire-powered steam engines were increasingly used to pump water. Even in their preparations, firemen often had to nurture the flame before quenching it. They set fires in flambeaux to light their way on darkened streets and placed glowing candles in their windows to signal comrades that they had heard the alarm and were on the way. With the advent of steam power and the need for heated firehouses to prevent the boilers from freezing, many firefighters had to set and tend fires on a regular basis. During the antebellum years, some in the fraternity carried this trend to the point of absurdity: some misguided companies of volunteers set fires deliberately, just so they could have the pleasure of putting them out.
Opposites: Recognition and Reconciliation
Hot and cold. Light and dark. Clear and smoky.
Opposites such as these have often been used to describe fire practices—sometimes quotably so, as when Benjamin Franklin observed of fireplace heating that it caused one to be "scorch'd before, while he's froze behind" or when some nameless wit coined the expression "Crooked logs make straight fires."
To Aristotle, such pairings would have made perfect sense. He believed, as a matter of scientific principle, that the recognition of opposites in the natural world is an important first step in reconciliation and understanding. American fire users, by contrast, had no such ambitions. Most of them lacked the intellectual underpinnings and scholarly mindset for such an esoteric approach. But they did have wide-ranging experience with fire. They knew from observation and manipulation that fire is complex, multidimensional, and contradictory. Furthermore, as almost any journal or autobiography of the nineteenth century will show, they seemed to understand that if they were going to use fire power at all, they would have to become reconciled to using it on many different levels simultaneously.
Lucy Larcom personified this accommodation as well as anyone. A worker in one of New England's early mills, Larcom published a memoir that includes a kaleidoscopic array of fire references. She cooked at the fireside and received inspiration in its ruddy glow. Although the lack of a fire "at five o'clock on a zero morning" chilled her physically, she writes that the closing up of the open fire by the introduction of stoves chilled her spiritually. On one occasion, Larcom narrowly escaped injury from some hot coals; yet she continued to enjoy sitting before the open flame.
Excerpted from Keepers of the Flame by Margaret Hindle Hazen, Robert M. Hazen. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Ch. 1 Heritage of Flame 3
Ch. 2 Good Servant 18
Ch. 3 Bad Master 65
Ch. 4 Fighting Back 110
Ch. 5 Keep the Home Fires Burning: Fire Tending and Maintenance 154
Ch. 6 Understanding Fire 183
Ch. 7 Perpetuating the Flame 215
Ch. 8 Epilogue 236