Rainbow Fire Company “Parade Hat” from the Museum Collection


Firemen of the 19th century often participated in parades while wearing painted stove pipe “parade hats” such as this example from the collections of the Berks History Center.   The date on the hat, 1773, is a reference to the date on which Reading’s Rainbow Fire Company was established. This particular hat might have been worn in 1873, when the Rainbow Fire Company participated in a particularly large parade to celebrate their 100th anniversary.

The hat is discretely marked with the name “J. Angstadt”.  In the mid-1800s, Reading was home to a Joel, a Jacob a Joseph and two John Angstadt’s.   We assume that one of these men served with the Rainbow Fire Company and wore this hat.  However, since Joel and Joseph Angstadt were well known painters, it is possible that one of them also supplied the art work.

Fireman’s Hat from the Museum Collection

In the spirit of our upcoming Second Saturday program on February 11th, we are taking a look at Berks County’s Historic Heros. We don’t have any artifacts that memorialize September 11th, but we do have a treasure trove of artifacts that honor Berks County’s Firefighers and Police.

This fireman’s hat from the early 20th century belonged to George W. Reed (1881-1971), a member of Reading’s Junior Fire Company #2. Formed in December 1813, the Junior Fire Company is the city’s second oldest fire department, and for much of its history occupied a building at the corner of Walnut and Vine Streets. George Reed was a machinist for Progressive Machine Works who had a long affiliation with the Junior Fire Company, serving as its president in 1912 and 1913, and appearing as an active member at least as late as 1938.

Scholla: Claim Your Bucket August 18, 1944

The first fire buckets used in Berks County were made by the shoe cobblers and were hand-sewn of the best tanned sole leather.

In those days, the water supply had to be conveyed by buckets which the residents were required to keep available in their homes. These were generally hung at the front of the house, so that when an alarm of the fire was sounded and they cried, “throw out your bucket,” the firemen and civilians racing up to the fire could easily pick them up.

When the nearest sources of water was located two lines, or brigades of fire fighters were formed to hand from one to the other the filled buckets and return the empty ones. Women and children frequently assisted in the line returning the empties.

When the fire was extinguished (out), the buckets were loaded onto a cart and carried to a central place and the watchmen on their rounds announced that the buckets were available for return to their respective owners by the familiar cry, “claim your bucket”.

It was not until 1806, when messrs. Sellers and Pennock, of Philadelphia, introduced leather fire hose held together by rivets of copper wire that hose played an effective part in extinguishing fires. The seams of the hose were double riveted with 22 copper rivets of number eight wire. The hose, when finished, with carrying loops and rings, weighed approximately 84 pounds for each 50 feet. This type of hose was supposed to withstand pressure of 200 pounds to the square inch. Cowhide was generally employed in the making of hose and after each fire had to be carefully dried and greased to keep it flexible. The grease used was a mixture of beef tallow and neat’s foot oil, applied warm before the hose was quite dry.


On display at the Berks History Center.


On display at the Berks History Center.

Scholla: Fire Charms January 20, 1941

Graeff, Arthur D. Scholla: Fire Charms. Reading Times. January 20, 1941

Destruction by fire was a constant threat to the security of farm homes of the early settlers of Pennsylvania. Civilized society had not yet erected guards against this menace and cooperative societies to insure against loss were unknown. It is not strange, therefore, that our fathers resorted to occult practices in their helplessness. The Pennsylvania Germans had several forms of fire charms and omens which would foretell the danger of conflagration.

The following Feuer-zettiel is supposed to have saved two of the buildings at Ephrata from the flames in 1747. Instructions are to draw the shield of David upon a piece of paper. The shield of David is formed by interlacing two equilateral triangles so that seven angles are formed. Into each angle mystical letters are written, the letters A, G, L, A, possessed a charm. In case of fire this design was to be drawn upon the sides of the threatened buildings. In addition to this procedure a verse from the book of Numbers was to be written on wooden platter, paper or breadcrust, carried three times around the building and then thrown into the flames.

Another zettlel consisted of a rhythmic incantation recited by the member of one sex to a member of the opposite sex. This would guard against the danger of fire, but only if recited on Friday, at full moon between the hours of 11 and 12 at night. This ritual could never be committed to paper and therefore could be transmitted only by word of mouth. The one who recited it faced the listener across a table on which lighted candles stood. Each actor placed his or her left hand upon the heart and with the right hand struck crosses over the breast.

The fire-spell used by conjurors was to hold two straws crosswise in his right hand and then repeat mystical phrases.

The omens by which a fire could be foretold were connected with sounds. A howling dog presaged a fire in the neighborhood. A feared sign was the striking of a clock during the tolling of a church bell. This was supposed to prophesy a conflagration within 24 hours. Sextons and bell ringers were careful to avoid such a coincidence. The horned beetle was believed to cause fires in stables and barns by carrying glowing coals from the hearth fire in then house to the outer buildings.

We have come far from those days, it is true, but many of us can remember the credulity with which we accepted the occult remedy of “blowing upon” burns and minor aches.

Leroy Gensler. Reading Times. 1/201941
Leroy Gensler. Reading Times. 1/201941
Leroy Gensler. Reading Times 1/20/1941
Leroy Gensler. Reading Times 1/20/1941