What follows is the essay “Esquisses a la Plume: Types du Bowery—le Pompier” [Pen Sketches: Bowery Types—The Fireman] by an anonymous French observer in the city of New York reprinted in George Goodrich Foster’s New York Naked (1854). It was annotated by John Warren.
The American fireman differs essentially from his French namesake. They have but a single point of correspondence, the common object of their mission. As to the organization of their bodies and their individual physiology, there is radical difference.
In France the fireman is recognized by his martial gait, by his uniform, and his helmet of polished brass. In New York, except when in actual service, the fireman wears a black dress, sometimes even a drab overcoat, and an umbrella — when it rains. The first is a soldier subject to a complete military discipline, and officered by men who belong to the ranks of the army.
The second is a simple citizen, without mustachios, exercising voluntarily his benevolent functions upon the sounding of the tocsin [an alarm bell or signal] that calls him to the field; free the remainder of the time, and owing no service nor obedience but to the chiefs of his company, who obtain their honors by election, and upon the strength of long services or of brilliant acts of courage and devotion.
Here [in the city of New York], one is a fireman when he does not wish to perform military nor jury duty. The American fireman inhabits, then, no particular barrack. He dwells everywhere, in every street, in every house, in every hotel. A clerk, a pastry cook, a poet, are all equally eligible as firemen, and man the pump merely as a matter of taste and for the love of rendering service to humanity. What sacrifices and dangers are imposed upon them sometimes in the accomplishment of their service, and how shall we describe the risks and dangers they run, and the vexations and annoyances to which they are subjected!
Thus, a young man is at the ball, in the midst of a fête [celebration] resplendent with light and beautiful ladies. At the moment when he is about raising his foot with the lady of his love to mingle in the first measures of the polka, rich in prospective pressures of the hand and glances of love, behold, he is arrested all of a sudden; and with neck outstretched, listening to a mysterious noise, at which he re-conducts his partner to her place, and hastens out of the saloon — but not without throwing a piteous regret upon the pleasures of the night.
This young man perhaps had a boot that pinched his corns, or, perhaps, he found himself taken with a sudden indisposition? No — reassure yourself. It is a fireman, who has just heard, rising above the harmonious waves of sound from the orchestra, the alarm bell of the City Hall. He hurries to his domicile, if it is not too far off, dons his red flannel-shirt, his patent-leather cap; and behold him, a few minutes afterwards, working at the pump, or galloping in the traces, neither more nor less than an omnibus horse.
The fire extinguished, he dresses himself anew, then goes to resume the thread of his night’s amusement, and the peroration of a love speech of which he had not time to come to the conclusion. It must not be supposed that fires here are less quickly extinguished than under a different system. There is not perhaps in the world a more energetic, more prompt, more active organized fire department.
For the rest, the title of fireman, honorable as it is, does not suffice to constitute here a regular position. It brings in nothing, pecuniary speaking, and no one enjoys a rank in the community entitling him to write on his visiting card, “Mr. Pillicoddy, fireman” [a reference to the one-act farce written by John Maddison Morton in 1848].
In France the fireman forms part of a corps d’elite. He is prized by the Government, which accords to him a high salary, and surrounds him with evidences of distinction. To conclude by a last trait, which relates to moral character — if the French fireman has known how to establish a universal reputation for gallantry — the oyster-women are there to bear witness of it — the American fireman might pass for being almost a savage.
The firemen recruit themselves, as we have said, from all ranks of society. They are found not only in all the quarters of New York, but disseminated over the entire surface of the United States, with such inherent variations of physiognomy as are incident to the locality. Nowhere, however, is the type more strongly defined, nor more distinctly colored, than in the Bowery.
Let us then continue our studies in this quarter. It would be difficult at the first glance to recognize anything but a citizen in a fireman, because he carries no visible badge of his profession; but in the Bowery there exist, however, certain peculiarities, indistinguishable to a person not accustomed to see them, which reveal infallibly a member of this vast corporation.
The Sporting Fireman
There are in this region a class of people who have in reality no other avowed profession. What name shall we give these? The word fireman is scarcely sufficient. It is necessary to add to it that of sportsman, in order to properly characterize them. The sporting fireman is in a certain circle a man of consideration. He plays an important part sometimes in the elections, and is both throne and oracle in the public-houses [taverns].
He is a species of fier-a-bras [brave/formidable knight], whose power is established by his mental and moral peculiarities on one side, and his brute force on the other. His feudal dominion extends over all those who are attached, directly or indirectly, to the fancy, and to the various kinds of sport. We must remark in passing the signification which is given to this word in New York.
In France, and especially England, the sportsman is almost always a gentleman, who, for the employment of his fortune and leisure, occupies himself with horses, with the chase, like the gentleman of the middle ages. Here, save that there may be a few rich men who follow the European traditions, sport is for the most part a business — the business of those who have no business — and a means of speculation. One bets on a boxer, on a horse, on a card, or on a bull-dog. One gains or loses.
This is play elevated to the rank of a profession; and this profession, like all others, has its degrees, its hierarchy — from the fashionable gamester, who scatters his gold with a hand elegantly gloved in white kid, and frequents the clubs of good society, to the vagabond who rattles the dice or shuffles the greasy cards in a low tavern; from the elegant horse-jockey who figures on the Centreville Course [a horse race track at what is now the Woodhaven neighborhood of Queens], to the buffoon who traffics in stolen dogs.
But the mass of sportsmen are the hundreds of individuals of whom one recognizes figures that no language names, and who gather round certain haunts in the Bowery, and elsewhere – the bar-rooms, and other places of public reunion. Of these one sees they are sportsmen, and it is well understood without further commentary, as when one says of another class, “they are doctors.”
The sporting fireman naturally finds himself in all places where sporting affairs are carried on; at the Centreville Course, at the gymnasiums, in the boxing-saloons [taverns where pugilists gather, often containing a sparring ring], and, above all, in the sporting coffee-houses [betting parlors], where wagers are arranged, and matches made up.
The physique of the sporting fireman is peculiar to himself, and we find in him even a certain brutal poetry which is his seal and stamp. He is rarely handsome, or, to speak more correctly, almost always he is literally ugly. His stature and carriage are striking, and his gait solid, yet elastic. He has great strength, and a spirit of grace in his movement.
On his head (the hair of which is smoothed with soap in puffs below the ears, and in large ringlets around them, that which has given birth, we presume, to the word “soaplock” as solely applied to this class) he wears a hat with a straight brim, and of the shape and fashion of a chimney pot. The hat inclined over the eyes, leaves open to view the immense posterior of the occiput [the back of the end].
Around the neck the hair is cut short, and resembles the mane of a certain animal who is scraped before being transformed to brushes, sausages and hams. Around his neck hangs, with a sort of coquettish negligence, a cravat of some color, red, yellow, or blue, the ends of which are arranged in flourishing spirals, and float like pennants on the wind.
The collar opened, when collar there is, permits to be seen a muscular chest, where sun and whisky have traced their blushing imprint. A red flannel-shirt, fastened on the breast with large buttons, black or white, and pantaloons, secured around the waist with a band of leather; boots of strong leather worn over the pantaloons: such is in general the costume of the sporting fireman.
Add to this bizarre costume the historical and necessary complement, the tobacco quid [a plug of chewing tobacco] illuminating with fancy designs the margin of his mouth, and the picture is complete.
The occupation, avowed and public, of these men, is firemen. As to gaming, which furnishes them with their real means of existence, they consider it merely as an accessory, an agreeable accomplishment, but an accomplishment by which they live.
This class of individuals is more numerous than one would naturally suppose. There are in New York an entire class who have no other life. However unfavorable to morals may be such an existence, it is not necessary, therefore, to imagine that it excludes all good sentiments.
The fireman is brave, adventurous, and in the ensemble of his character, not withstanding the tendency towards vicious habits and debased instincts, possesses a certain elevation of soul which makes itself visible sometimes, and of which many examples might be cited. The gambling-house, the house of prostitution, the groggery [a small grog shop, a street bar], are the habitual sphere where he expends his active life; and it is not wonderful that such an existence should go far to extinguish all his noble faculties.
But in the midst of this dissipation and demoralization, there are moments in which burns a pure generosity and a disinterested morality. It is only in part. it is true. A brutality, carried sometimes almost to the point of cruelty, seems to be the foundation of his nature, although he is susceptible of devoted attachment and profound friendship.
One circumstance goes far to neutralize the value of these generous instincts — and this is, that they are exercised too often on those who are unworthy of them, and are manifested almost always by acts of a puerility so exaggerated that the fact makes us forget the cause, and the action disqualifies us from appreciating the motive.
The Fancy Fireman
Adjacent to the sphere of the sporting fireman we find another class of individuals, happily less numerous, to whom it would be difficult to give a decorous name if the American writers themselves had not resolved the difficulty by styling them “fancy firemen.” These leave far behind them the first, who, although of questionable morality, are not directly nuisances to society.
The fancy firemen have not even the speculations of play for a means of subsistence. They live one knows not how, sleeping one knows not where — and yet they live and sleep. When night descends upon the city, the fancy firemen set themselves at work, and you may see them circulating, seeking adventures, inundating the bar-rooms, insulting women, quarreling among themselves, fighting, and making false alarms of fire, for the express purpose, in the language of their oratory, of getting up a muss — that is to say, a tumultuous scramble, in which they and their friends always find means to play a conspicuous part.
With these men nothing is entitled to respect but the baton of the policeman. They are the froth that gathers and ferments in the popular quarters, the scourge of honest laborers, the nursery whence are recruited the pensioners of the Tombs [New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention in Lower Manhattan], the philosopher’s stone to the Chief of Police.
The fancy men have an unknown origin. Like rivers whose sources have not yet been discovered, we only know whence they run — to the penitentiary. The family for them is a myth, and they seem to have been created, like pestiferous insects, from the miasma of the streets and gutters. Social mushrooms, they grow up, live, and die on the dunghill. They form, in the language of our friend, G. G. Foster [George Goodrich Foster, author of New York By Gas Light and New York Naked, a journalist and keen observer of New York life in the 1840s and 1850s], “a regular cordon of rascality.”
It is impossible to give a complete description of this tribe of equivocal firemen, for there is nothing definite concerning them but the vagabondage of their existence. In all the great cities they exist, and escape the eye of the observer for the very logical reason that they are seldom seen in the daytime.
Nothing short of a general perturbation brings them to the surface. A political émeute [riot], for example, or a fire; for in either of these cases they are enabled to inherit without discovery some of the spoils and property of others. Here, fires being frequent, the fancy men have an occupation in some sort permanent, and for this reason doubtless it is that they are called “the men what run with the engine.”
This sympathy manifested by the fancy men for the fire engine, sometimes classes them in the ranks of firemen; but it would be treating them with far too much honor to suppose for an instant that they belong to that occupation. It is in fact the first to disown them. It possesses far too correct a sense of its own dignity and respect for honesty, not to repulse these miserable excrescences who endeavor to attach themselves to it.
The sportsman himself does not tolerate the fancy man, except on conditions that he confines himself within legal limits. In despite of these parasitical hornets, for which they ought not to be considered responsible, the body of the firemen are unquestionably worthy, of great consideration; for they are composed, in an immense majority, of honest and laborious workmen, of clerks belonging to respectable establishments, often even of masters and proprietors of shops and stores.
The sporting fireman himself, viewed only in his devotion to the public welfare, ought not to be excluded from this majority; for it is possible to gamble and yet to be a good citizen. However venturesome this assertion may seem, it is however, in the United States no less than elsewhere, a national trait, and frequently this daring and venturous spirit of speculation rises to the confines of sublimity.
The firemen form an institution highly useful, highly moral, highly philanthropic, and those who belong to it are always ready at the first sound of the bell to expose their lives for the good of the community, employing in their voluntary mission a constant energy and a devotion often heroic, meriting the sympathies of all honest men and a fair place in public opinion.
Illustrations, from above: “Streets of New York” advertisement, 1869 (Harvard Theatre Collection); Unknown (American, 19th Century) portrait of two firemen, circa 1850; Detail from a mid-19th century trotting race print portraying a race at the Centreville Course; Fictional Bowery fireman Mose Humphrey with soaplocks, as played by Frank Chanfrau, 1848 (Harvard Theatre Collection); A drunken scene in a dancing hall with a sly customer eyeing a young girl etching by George Cruikshank, 1848; an a detail from “The Life of a Fireman: The Night Alarm” after Louis Maurer (print by Currier and Ives, 1854).