It's getting hot in here, so take off all your laces and frills and reach for the antique fire bucket to help put out the blaze. Firefighting history is fascinating and underappreciated in the larger historical narrative, and collectors of firefighting paraphernalia love cataloging all of the old ways of keeping fires at bay. Fire buckets were just one of the many systems for putting out fires to emerge in the past few hundred years, but they're definitely the most colorful and widely available today.
The Great Fire of London and the Origin of Fire Buckets
In the post-1666 Great Fire of London world, bucket brigades came onto the scene. These community-driven firefighting systems were put in place in the event of a massive fire and involved all of the members of the community lining up between the nearest water source and the blaze, and transferring both full and empty water buckets between each other. Originally, these buckets were made out of leather held together by rivets and bore the family names, crests, or other insignia of the families they belonged to. In fact, these bucket brigades were so serious that there were colonial laws mandating that every household have a bucket at the ready in case of a fire.
Bucket Brigades Transform Into Firefighting Organizations
This devastating effect that fires had on 18th century infrastructure was massive, and it led to leaders like Benjamin Franklin to help reorganize bucket brigades into firefighting companies. While these firefighting companies were relatively unreliable and frequently competed with one another to be the first to put out fires (leading to a lot of street brawls and not extinguished fires in dense municipal areas), many people continued owning their own fire buckets as a safeguard against the potential infernos.
The advent of steam engines, hand-drawn pumpers, and more codified fire stations pushed out the lingering remnants of colonial bucket brigades. Although bucket brigades were largely disbanded by the 20th century, fire buckets were still manufactured. They were definitely less common to have in the 20th century, but examples of vintage fire buckets can be found in antique stores and online.
Antique Fire Buckets Through the Ages
Since humans learned how to make fire, they've been trying to keep them put out. Long before there was a massive network of fire hydrants and designated fire houses ready to heed the 'fire' call, people kept fire buckets on hand. Yet, as population density increased and city infrastructure grew, these at-home systems for putting out fires continued to evolve, until they weren't needed anymore.
Due to this evolution, there's a variety of styles available for collectors to find and enjoy.
Leather Fire Buckets
Leather fire buckets were one of the earliest kinds of institutionalized fire deterrents out there. They were made out of one of the earliest materials known to mankind--animal hide. Commonly created during the 17th and 18th centuries, leather fire buckets were sometimes filled with sand but mostly left empty and ready to put out a fire at a moment's notice. Families would keep these buckets on hooks near their entryways and exits for easy access so that they could jump into the fray of a bucket brigade in the case of a massive fire outbreak.
These buckets were usually cylindrical and bound together with metal rivets and metal-clasped leather handles. While they're not particularly rare, it's harder to find them in a good condition thanks to how fragile leather can become over time.
Cone-Shaped and Round Bottomed Fire Buckets
Both cone-shaped and round bottomed fire buckets came out of the 19th and 20th centuries, being made out of vulcanized steel and other metals, and often painted bright red to indicate their fire fighting purpose. As opposed to regular metal fire buckets, these unique firefighting tools feature unusual design elements (a bottom that's either rounded or comes to a sharp point).
As odd as these design features may seem, they actually served the purpose of preventing people from stealing these buckets (hung in easy-to-reach locations for maximum impact) and using them for another purpose. While it's easy for a thief to repaint a red bucket, it's not so easy for them to put a cone-shaped bucket to practical use. These metal bucket deviants are a fun piece of firefighting history that collectors love to look for.
Antique Fire Bucket Values Heating Up the Collectibles Market
For a seemingly innocuous collectible, antique fire buckets can sell for surprisingly high amounts at auction. Generally, age and condition have the greatest bearing on these actual amounts. Buckets from the 18th and 19th century can sell in the upper hundreds while their vintage counterparts can sell for the lower hundreds. Additionally, buckets with any original decals, artwork, fire station information, and so on will sell for more than those that're unmarked.
Unlike comic books and other collectibles, where the more pristine they are, the more they're worth, antique fire buckets can sell for large sums with substantial wear and tear. Things like worn away paint won't typically detract that much from the bucket's overall value.
For an idea of how much these historic fire aids are valued at, here are a few that've recently come to market:
- Vintage cone-shaped fire bucket from Seaboard Coast Line Railroad - Sold for $79.20
- Early 20th century fire station fire bucket in bright orange - Listed for $162
- 1822 leather fire bucket in fair condition - Listed for $209.99
- Early 20th century round bottom fire bucket and iron pike - Listed for $299
- 1782 elongated Swiss leather fire bucket in good condition - Listed for $1,000
Best Places to Find Antique Fire Buckets for Sale
Of course, while these fire buckets have fallen out of practical fashion, collectors still love finding them in antique stores and auctions. Since they take up such little space, can be affordable (at least, vintage ones are), and visually tell a historical story, these antiques are great one-off items for all kinds of collectors. If you're thinking about buying or selling an antique or vintage fire bucket, you should head to any of these online retailers:
- eBay - As always, eBay has a substantial collection of firefighting memorabilia and antique goods available. Since you're purchasing from individual sellers, make sure that you read carefully through each listing and that you know what the seller's return policy is.
- Etsy - Another great retailer to look for antique fire buckets is Etsy. They have an array of antique and vintage fire buckets available, and at varying prices, meaning that all collectors can find something they enjoy there.
- Live Auctioneers - Browse through the Live Auctioneers website to see what items partnered auction houses currently have for sale; since Live Auctioneers is a facilitator for sales between auction businesses, the items they tend to sell are of a higher quality than those found on independent seller platforms like eBay.
Put out the Fire in Style
You don't have to be quick with a fire extinguisher or belong to a fire station to be able to enjoy antique firefighting collectibles, and antique fire buckets are a cool and useful way to add a touch of history to your home.