The Warner House will be open on Thursday, October 14 & Friday, October 15 from 11 AM - 4 PM. Then we will be closed until June 2022.

A Brief History of Fire Buckets

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Before the time when cities had organized fire departments and modes of transportation that could carry large quantities of water, the best way to put out fires was by using fire buckets. Made of leather, these buckets could usually hold up to two gallons of water. Often included with fire buckets was a linen “salvage” bag for the inhabitants of the building, so in case of a fire, they could grab their most precious belongings and bring them in the bag.

In the eighteenth century, most households and businesses had fire buckets. The number of buckets per household or business generally depended on how much of a fire risk was posed by the building. Everyone had their names written on their buckets, often including numbers which would depend on how many buckets they owned. Here at the Warner House, we have two fire buckets on display in the Entry Hallway downstairs. Both have “Jonathan Warner 1738” written on them in paint. Although these fire buckets are not in a numbered sequence, they do feature dates which probably refer to when they were assigned to Warner.

Whenever a fire would break out, everyone would bring their fire buckets with them to the nearest well and begin what is known as a “Bucket Brigade”. They would form two lines: one line to pass water-filled buckets to the fire, and one line to pass empty buckets back to be filled again.

The city of Portsmouth was no stranger to fires. In the early 19 th century, many buildings in downtown Portsmouth were made of wood which is highly flammable. Oddly enough, the three fires that ravaged the city in all occurred close to the holiday of Christmas. The first fire was in 1802 and it destroyed 114 buildings. The second fire was only four years later, in 1806, and destroyed Market Square as well as the wooden St. John’s Church structure built in 1732. The worst fire was in 1813, which wiped out 300 buildings. It is said that the fire of 1813 was so big that it could be seen all the way in Salem, Massachusetts! Jonathan Warner himself lost property in that fire, specifically a wooden structure at the corner of Sheafe Street and Chapel Street.

All these fires, coupled with the War of 1812 and Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807, devastated Portsmouth’s economy and it would take many years to rebuild the city. In response to all the disastrous fires, the New Hampshire legislature decided to pass a law known as the Brick Act of 1814, which mandated that any new buildings taller than 12 feet in Portsmouth must be made of brick, in order to help withstand any future fire breakouts. This can be seen today in Portsmouth’s beautiful downtown, which is filled with brick buildings. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it has functionality as well!

Sources:

Fire Bucket – The Hyland House Museum

Fire Buckets in 18th Century Boston | Skinner Inc.

FINAL POINT OF GRAVES/LEFT (cityofportsmouth.com)

The Portsmouth Fires That Turned the City to Brick - New England Historical Society