Old Target Companies And Firemen
( Originally Published 1921 )
The Target Companies and Firemen are naturally associated together, as the Target Company was an outgrowth in the first instance of the Fire Companies, though later on they were formed by various bodies of men like employees of factories, or congenial spirits of some neighborhood. Though I lived in a distant Western city, yet as a small boy I was frequently in New York, and I especially have very vivid recollections of the firemen of the old volunteer days, their beautiful engines and hose carriages, without doubt the most beautiful objects on wheels that the world has ever seen.. As we always stayed at some hotel on Broadway, there were daily sights of military companies, the passing of fire engines, or the marching by of Target Companies. Every summer morning various companies of these latter would march down Broadway on the way to Staten Island, some point down the Bay across to New Jersey or Brooklyn, then uptown, at the same time, there were, other companies going to Jones Woods and other points, to pass by with the blare of a full military band, or the inspiring music of drums and fifes.
These companies wore a uniform consisting of a fire-man's red flannel shirt, dark trousers and glazed leather cap. Looking up Broadway from the hotel windows I could often see farther up the street various bright spots of brilliant- red, sometimes blocks apart, showing where other companies were on their way downtown.
In 1849 Garibaldi, living on Staten Island, and seeing these Target Companies in their firemen's red shirts, got the idea of this uniform for future use, and so the New York Firemen's red 'flannel shirt became known abroad as the Garibaldi shirt.
An English lady, Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, visited this country during 1849 and '50, and in her book, Travels in the United States, published by Harper & Bros. in 1851, in describing New York, speaks of the military companies. As you may not have the book at hand, I will give you extracts from it, and then she says :
"There are a number of target companies, each known by some particular name—usually, I believe, that of a favorite leader who is locally popular among them. Others take their appellation from some celebrated historical character, and others from anything that happens to occur to them, it would seem.
"A few of them are `The Washington Market CHOWDER Guard' (chowder is a famous dish in the United States), `Bony Fusileers,' `Pea-nut Guard,' 'Sweet's Epicurean Guard' (surely these must be confectioners), 'George R. Jackson & Company's Guard,' 'Nobody's Guard,' 'Oregon Blues,' 'Tenth Ward Light Guard,' 'Carpenter Guard,' 'First Ward Magnetizers,' 'Tompkins' Butcher Association Guard,' 'Mustache Fusileers,' 'Henry Rose Light Guard,' 'Atlantic Light Guard,' 'Junior Independence Guard,' and multitudes of others.
"The militia numbers about one hundred companies which comprise six thousand men. The Target Companies are said not to fall short of ten thousand men. I am informed that the passion of arms is beginning to manifest itself very much here, and the youths are not happy until they are enrolled in some of those bands. It is said that thousands of the boldest spirits in the Mexican campaign, who were ever in the van, and at the post of danger, rushing to the cannon's mouth with fiery valor, and storming, with irresistible intrepidity, the strongholds of the enemy, were those who had figured in such `Target Companies' as these.
"Generally a target, profusely decorated with flowers, is carried before the company, borne on the stalwart shoulders of a herculean specimen of the African race, to be shot at for a prize, or for glory, and the `bubble reputation' alone. . . There are so many of those enrolled bands, that they and the omnibuses share the honor of filling, and rousing the echoes of busy Broadway.
"I hear that some of the best and finest of their organizations are formed out of the fire companies, who thus take upon them-selves a twofold responsibility, the protection of the property and lives of the citizens from a most formidable and merciless foe, and the rendering themselves capable of discharging the patriotic duty of crushing any enemy to their institutions that may threaten the country, either domestic or foreign. Nowhere, on the earth, I should think, are such numerous and splendid bodies of firemen; and in no place under the sun, or moon, I honestly think, have they such extensive, incessant and unlimited practice. And what men in the world ought to make such admirable warriors as firemen? At all times, but especially at the dead hour of midnight, forced to leave their homes at a moment's notice, to start from slumber, after, perhaps, a day of wearying toil and harassing vexations—to confront the direst extremes of cold and heat—to brave the `pitiless pelting' of the storm—to face the raging element, that is their remorseless and tremendous antagonist—to dare almost every imaginable peril without the prospect of reward, or of promotion, or even of renown and glory—they should certainly make heroes, when fame and victory beckon them proudly onward.
"They are trained too, to strict discipline; taught to obey every word of command of their superiors, and to act together in concert, and it may be imagined they would prove gallant candidates for glory in the field. Often the lieutenants and captains of the Target Companies are artisans, laborers, clerks and mechanics. The companies elect their officers, and constantly without the least favor—I borrow the expression of an American writer—shown `to class, or rank, or wealth.' The man who is most distinguished by these advantages, frequently shoulders his musket as a private; and yet he may most largely subscribe to the company's expenses for yearly `excursions,' and other contingencies and needs."
In 1861 Charles Dickens was editor of "All the Year 'Round," and in the number of March 16, 1861, is an article entitled, "American Volunteer Firemen," and it is so much in his style that one might think it was writ-ten by him himself from information, perhaps, furnished. Here are some extracts from this article:
"Now rises to the immaculate blue sky that ever smiles on New York, a bray of brass, a clamp of cymbals, and the piercing supplication of fifes, and bomb tom cannonades the drum, with expostulating groan.
"Ha! there breaks through the black-panted crowd (even the seediest American wears evening dress) gleams of warm scarlet! It is the rifle company of one of the New York Volunteer Fire-men Societies. Here they come, four abreast. `Fours,' with no very severe military air of stiff order and mathematical regularity, but with light, gay, swinging step, jaunty, careless, rather defiant freemen, a little self-conscious of display, but braving it out in a manly game-cock way. They are trailing rifles now, the officers swinging round in the wheels with them, glittering sword in hand.
"They wear a rude sort of shako covered with oilskin, red flannel shirts, with black silk handkerchiefs, blowing gaily (as to the ends), tied round their throats in jaunty sailors' knots ; they are all young men, some quite boys. It is evidently the manner with them to affect recklessness, so as not to appear to be drilled or drummed about to the detriment of their brave democratic freedom uniform. No, they would as soon wear flamingo-plush and bell-hanging shoulder-knots.
"These street processions are incessant in New York, and contribute much to the gayness of the street. Whether firemen, or volunteers, or political torch-bearers, they are very arbitrary in their march. They allow no omnibus, or van, or barouche, to break their ranks; and I have often seen all the immense traffic of Broadway (a street that is a mixture of Cheapside and Regent-street) stand still, benumbed, while a band of men, enclosed in a square of rope, dragged by a shining brass gun or a bran new gleaming fire-engine.
"But, after all, it is at night-time that the fireman is really himself, and means something. He lays down the worn-out pen, and shuts up the red-lined ledger. He hurries home from Lime-street, slips on his red shirt and black dress-trousers, dons his solid japanned leather helmet bound with brass, and hurries to the guard-room, or the station, if he be on duty.
"A gleam of red, just a blush in the sky, eastward—Williamstreet way—among the warehouses ; and presently the telegraph begins to work. For, every fire station has its telegraph, and every street has its line of wires, like metallic washing-lines. Jig-jag, tat-tat, goes the indicator: `Fire in William-street, No. 3, Messrs. Hardcastle and Co.'
"Presently the enormous bell, slung for the purpose in a wooden shed in the City Park just at the end of Broadway, begins to swing and roll backward.
"In dash the volunteers in their red shirts and helmets—from oyster cellars and half-finished clam soup, from newly begun games of billiards, from the theatre, from Boucicault, from Booth, from the mad drollery of the Christy minstrels, from stiff quadrille parties, from gin-slings, from bar-rooms, from sulphurous pistol galleries, from studios, from dissecting rooms, from half-shuttered shops, from conversazioni and lectures—from everywhere—north, south, east, and west—breathless, hot. eager, daring, shouting, mad. Open fly the folding-doors, out glides the new engine—the special pride of the company—the engine whose excellence many lives have been lost to maintain; `A reg'lar high-bred little stepper' as ever smith's hammer forged. It shines like a new set of cutlery, and is as light as a `spider waggon' or a trotting-gig. It is not the great Juggernaut car of our Sun and Phoenix offices—the enormous house on wheels, made as if purposely cumbrous and eternal--but is a mere light musical snuff-box of steel rods and brass supports, with axes and coils of leather, brass-socketed tubing fastened beneath, and all ready for instant and alert use.
"Now, the supernumeraries—the haulers and draggers, who lend a hand at the ropes—pour in from the neighboring dram-shops or low dancing-rooms, where they remain waiting to earn some dimes by such casualties. A shout—a tiger !
"'Hei! hei!! hei!!! hei!!!!' (crescendo), and out at lightning speed dashes the engine, in the direction of the red gleam now widening and sending up the fanlike radiance of a volcano.
"Perhaps it is a steam fire-engine. These are entire successes, and will soon be universal among a people quick to grasp onward at all that is new, if it be but better than the old. Then the fires are lighted, and breathing out ardent smoke, and spitting out trails of fiery cinders ; off it dashes.
"Now, a roar and crackle, as the quick-tongued flames leap out, read and eager, or lick the black blistered beams—now, hot belches of smoke from shivering windows—now, snaps and smashes of red-hot beams, as the floors fall in—now, down burning stairs, like frightened martyrs running from the stake, rush poor women and children in white trailing nightgowns—now, the mob, like a great exulting many-headed monster, shouts with delight and sympathy—now, race up the fire-engines, the men defying each other in rivalry, as they plant the ladders and fire-escapes. The fire-trumpets roar out stentorian orders—the red shirts fall into line—rock, rock, go the steel bars that force up the water—up leap the men with the hooks and axes—crash, crash, lop, chop, go the axes at the partitions, where the fire smoulders. Now, spurt up in fluid arches the blue white jets of water, that hiss and splash, and blacken out the spasms of fire; and as every new engine dashes up, the thousands of upturned faces turn to some new shade of reflected crimson, and the half-broken beams give way at the thunder of their cheers."
Further on the writer describes a fire next to Barnum's Museum while he was attending a performance there. He leaves and goes out to witness the fire:
"In a few minutes I was in the street. The red shirts were swarming there. The black hose was coiling about all the neigh-boring streets. Everywhere water was dripping and puddling. The trim brass engines were shining in the flames, that broke in puffs from the house next to Barnum's—a tailor's, I think. Smack! splash! went the water, blacking out the red and yellow wherever it fell. New engines, strong as steel could make them, yet light as gigs, dashed up every minute. The police, in their blue frock-coats and low flat caps, were busy making room for the firemen in red shirts, and for the last arrival of engines; and, over all the shouting and bellowing of the fire-horns sounded the clamor of the tocsin bells of the neighbouring churches."
If Charles Dickens didn't write this, or revise it for some other writer, it is very much in his style—but in either case it is a very good description of the sights in New York in former days.