The Myrtle Avenue Collection.
New York & Brooklyn Fire Department Badges
In the days of the volunteer fire departments in Brooklyn and New York city, there was little to identify who belonged at a fire scene and who did not. The leather helmets and flannel shirts that were a fireman's working uniform could not always be donned in time, and so men would often report for duty in their civilian clothes. This led to security problems, as individuals with nefarious intentions would mingle among firefighters and help themselves to the contents of burning buildings.
To combat this, city officials adopted badges to be worn by all members of the department at fire scenes. Individual companies had worn their own styles of badges, but it was not until 1855 that New York city developed a uniform style for all to wear. Between 1855 and 1860, many of these badges were lost, stolen, or otherwise misplaced, so three new patterns were designed by Samuel Burhans, Jr., one for each type (engine, ladder, or hose) of company. The color of metal used indicated whether the wearer had "active" or "exempt" status in the department.
Our badge (above) was worn by a member of "Tradesman's" Engine 37, which was located at 100 East 59th Street., Manhattan, until disbanded with the rest of the volunteer companies in November, 1865. It is approximately 1 7/8" high by 1 1/2" wide, and made of white metal, indicating "exempt" status.
The numerals "37," indicating the company number, are of Prince's metal. The numerals "41" engraved near the top of the badge indicate the individual firefighter's number within the company. At the bottom is a raised image of a "Philadelphia" style double-decker hand engine. The badge fastens with a standard straight pin on a hinge. There is no record in the ledgers of the department that tell us to whom the badge belonged. Such badges are seen worn by Civil War soldiers along with their uniforms, most notably Col. Elmer Ellsworth (shown right), who was an honorary member of Engine Co. 14.
Records indicate that the City of Brooklyn, an independent entity until the consolidation of boroughs in 1898, was issuing badges to its fire department seven years earlier than its neighbors across the river. The Brooklyn Fire Department was divided between two districts, the Eastern and Western. These badges, both from the Western District (as indicated by "W.D.") were in use between 1855 and 1869, at which point Brooklyn's department gained paid status. These badges also followed the "color code" system of white metal badges being worn by "exempt" firemen, and Prince's metal by "active" firemen, with the member's individual number applied on the badge with a contrasting metal.
No identification has been made as to the holders of these badges yet. #1032 is said to have been worn by a firefighter killed in the line of duty in 1867, but that story could not be verified. We soon hope to be able to do research in a register of badges said to exist at the Brooklyn Historical Society to identify their bearers.
George C. Garmon, a member of the 38th New York Regiment was wearing such a badge when he was killed at the battle of Williamsburg, VA in May, 1862. The badge was recovered by a comrade and sent along with a letter to Garmon's family. The badge and the accompanying letter are on display at the American Museum of Firefighting in Hudson, NY.
Much of the information contained hereon is taken from Gary Urbanowicz's stellar work Badges of the Bravest. For more information on the book, please visit Gary's website.