Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents and titles. He was a printer, writer, scientist, inventor, politician, diplomat, and philosopher, among other things. But did you know he was also a firefighter? In 1736, Franklin helped found the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia, one of the first volunteer fire departments in America. He was an original signee of their founding articles and was an active participant for decades. Even after he had earned global fame and had involved himself in the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin remained involved in the operations of the fire company that he helped found.
Fires were a huge problem for cities in a colonial America that were built mostly out of wood. It was a threat that Franklin especially took seriously as evidenced not just by his role in forming the fire company but also in his work with electricity and his invention of the lightning rod. Franklin understood how many lives could be saved if fires were handled properly. It is likely that he received inspiration from a volunteer fire company that had formed in Boston earlier in the eighteenth century, highlighting that this was a problem that all cities had to deal with. The members of the fire company were well-regarded tradesman like Franklin and were respected members of society. Some of their names are especially familiar due to the roles that their more famous children and relatives would play in the coming Revolution. Samuel Nicholas, considered to be the first Commandant of the Marine Corps, was a notable member who joined sometime after the Revolutionary War.
In February of either 1734 or 1735, Franklin published a letter discussing the importance of fire prevention. It mentions the need for better chimney care, digging proper hearths, avoiding putting wood moldings on the lining of fireplaces, among other ideas. It lists places that had fire companies and gave detailed descriptions of them. Was this anonymous letter, only signed “A.A,” an inspiration for the Union Fire Company? It is hard to tell. But Franklin would help form the company shortly thereafter.
On December 7, 1736, the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia was formed. Its charter included ten articles and was signed by twenty men with seven more added as a postscript. The names Coates, Syng, and Shippen especially stand out as possible members of notable families. Provisions in the articles included that each member must provide two buckets and four bags of rope, laid out the circumstances under which members could be fined, stipulated that the company would pay to replace lost gear, set regular meeting schedules, set a schedule for taking turns as company clerk, set a limit of twenty-five members at any time, instructed each member to keep two lists of all members, and directed that the members shall take care of a widow of any deceased member. Maybe most interesting was article number four, which stipulated how they should act at a fire:
That we will all of us, upon hearing of Fire breaking out at or near any of our Dwelling Houses, immediately repair to the same with all our Buckets and Baggs, and there employ our best Endeavours to preserve the Goods and Effects of such of us as shall be in Danger by Packing the same into our Baggs: And if more than one of us shall be in Danger at the same time, we will divide our selves as near as may be to be equally helpful. And to prevent suspicious Persons from coming into, or carrying any Goods out of, any such House, Two of our Number shall constantly attend at the Doors until all the Goods and Effects that can be saved shall be secured in our Baggs, and carryed to some safe Place, to be appointed by such of our Company as shall be present, Where one or more of us shall attend them ’till they can be conveniently delivered to, or secured for, the Owner.
So, just like firefighters today, the volunteers of the Union Fire Company put themselves at risk when responding to calls. Also like today, they would respond at all hours of the night, with an example being a fire at 2 a.m. at a “blockmaker’s shop” in Water Street where Franklin lost two leather fire buckets. Multiple buildings appear to have been lost or severely damaged in the blaze, but the efforts of the firefighters, including Franklin, were credited with saving further destruction. The fact that the buildings were made out of wood was specifically blamed for the spread of the inferno. A collection was also reported as being taken for the “sufferers.”
Franklin would continue to publish the exploits of the Union Fire Company in his newspaper. One account noted the usefulness of the firefighters’ axes in putting out the flames, as the holes they created allowed water to be poured on the flames. Accounts like this appeared in Franklin’s newspaper alongside advertisements for books and slaves, as this was before Franklin became an abolitionist. As incredible as the idea of Benjamin Franklin fighting fires might sound to us today, one might say that the casual inclusion of these stories alongside regular advertisements tells us that he saw it as simply doing his civic duty. But the publication of these accounts gave credit to these men as they risked their lives and it was a gratefulness that extended throughout the country, just as it continues today. A 1786 letter to Abigail Adams from a friend in Massachusetts noted that “we have been alarmed almost every day for the month past by fire; which has several times done mischief, but to the activity of our Firemen we are much indebted that it has done so little.”
Money was a common problem for the Union Fire Company and its members. Lotteries were held to raise money and Franklin led efforts to raise fire insurance funds (sometimes to no avail). Another way of raising funds was through the issuing of fines to members and Franklin was not immune. Even if a member died, it was expected that the fines would be paid back by his estate. Among the most common offenses by the fined was missing their regular meetings, something that Franklin found himself guilty of his fair share of times. Even in his advanced age, this was not to be forgiven; he was fined for missing even the final meeting before his death. It appears that Franklin always made sure to pay his fines, though, even if he continued to accrue them. He also took his fair share of turns as clerk at the meetings. Even Benjamin Franklin was held accountable for his missteps and not given special treatment.
In addition to lost buckets, the hooks that the firemen used were sometimes lost or damaged. The firemen went to lengths to get new pumps and even sent to London for a new fire engine. They discussed the need for new ladders. To pay for all of this, money was generally collected from the members and lotteries also helped. Franklin even put up some of his money for down payments on things like engines, with the promise of being paid back once the money could be raised and collected. His standing and successful business afforded him the ability to do this.
Franklin did different odd jobs for the fire company in addition to loaning it money. He bound the books used to record minutes of their meetings, paid for improvements to the company engine, and was on a committee to procure a new pump. He lost a bag at a fire and made efforts to be repaid by the company for it. He was charged with reaching out to other companies to see where they got equipment such as bells. He served on company committees, including one for discussing whether company stock should be used to help members pay for goods lost in fires. All the while, he is writing up proposals relating to fire insurance, continuing to lose gear at fires, and donating money to support the fire company.
Eventually, though, as Franklin’s fame grew, he was forced to become less involved with the fire company. When he went to England in 1757, he was excused from meetings and not fined, and did not attend them during his brief return in 1763. When he returned in 1775 his time was taken up by the burgeoning Revolution and the Continental Congress. The company, in general, met much less frequently during the war years. It was several decades between fire company meetings for Benjamin Franklin; it does not appear that he attended one again until 1785, after his return from France. But, by this point, his health was deteriorating and he seldomattended meetings. He made sure to pay his fines for missing them, though.
The Union Fire Company was an early example of people coming together to do what they perceived as their civil duty. Benjamin Franklin put a great deal of emphasis on living a useful life in which public service was paramount. Therefore, his leading role in both the creation and the first two decades of the Union Fire Company makes total sense. Fires could be intense. Just like firefighters today put their lives on the line every day, so did the members of the Union Fire Company, Benjamin Franklin among them. It is an incredible example of how Franklin was a man of many talents.
Union Fire Company Records, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 143.
“On Protection of Towns from Fire, 4 February 1735,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0002.
Union Fire Company Records.
“Articles of the Union Fire Company, 7 December 1736,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0024.
“Extracts from the Gazette, 1743,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0099.
“Extracts from the Gazette, 1744,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0117.
“Charles Storer to Abigail Adams, 13 April 1786,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-07-02-0047.
“Deed of Settlement of the Philadelphia Contributionship, 25 March 1752,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-04-02-0100; “Scheme of the First Philadelphia Lottery, 5 December 1747,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-03-02-0097.
Union Fire Company Records.