is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950

Author(s):Tebeau, Mark
Reviewer(s):Baranoff, Dalit

Published by EH.NET (June 2004)

Mark Tebeau, Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 2003. xi + 425 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6791-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Dalit Baranoff, Department of History, Johns Hopkins University.

Scott Tebeau’s well-researched monograph is the latest to tackle the complex story of fire in urban America. Approaching the story from the perspectives of both firefighters and underwriters, he examines the struggles of both groups to bring conflagration, the great scourge of nineteenth-century America, under control. Through detailed investigation of two cities, case studies of two insurance companies, and a wealth of other evidence, Tebeau develops an interwoven story of gender, class, culture, and technology: contrasting the heroics of working-class firefighters with the rational order of middle-class fire underwriters.

Once a communal obligation, firefighting moved into the hands of a corps of volunteer firemen in the American city of the early nineteenth century. Using newly invented leather hoses and hand-pumped fire engines, the volunteers were able to douse fires more efficiently than bucket brigades. Fire companies developed distinct identities and elaborate costumes, and competed with each other through contests of physical strength and speed.

By the middle of the century, urban businessmen, fire insurers among them, were calling for paid fire departments. Viewing the working-class, ethnic volunteers as “disorderly,” they aimed to rationalize firefighting, much as the quantification of risk and the routinization of business practices had begun to do in fire underwriting. After initial resistance to professionalization and the adoption of new technologies such as the steam fire engine, firefighters instead sought to shape the new order to their advantage. Yet even as their departments became increasingly bureaucratized, they were able to carve out a new identity based on occupational specialization. Where firefighters had previously concentrated on putting out fires, by the late nineteenth century, they were increasingly concerned with using ladders and specialized equipment to save lives, and “eating smoke” to reach those trapped in burning buildings.

While firefighters physically battled fire, insurers strove to control its economic consequences through early attempts at actuarial science and the mapping of insurance risk. Only near the turn of the twentieth century did underwriters begin to advocate fire reduction through stronger building codes and the development of industry-wide standards.

Much of the history of firefighting is colored by myth. Early nineteenth-century firemen have been described as hooligans, more concerned with fighting each other than putting out fires. Tebeau offers a more moderate view, showing how volunteers were part of a culture that was reacting to the changes in work and community wrought by industrialization. Tebeau revisits the mores of the volunteers, a masculine, working-class, often ethnic milieu whose conception of virile manhood stood in sharp contrast with emerging middle-class concepts of rational and orderly masculinity. Mid-nineteenth-century middle-class society prized order and propriety. It was to the advantage of the advocates of professional fire departments to play up this image of volunteer firemen as rough and rowdy. The volunteers played a similar game of their own, depicting would-be paid firefighters as incompetent and lazy, and ethnic or racial inferiors.

In the end, rather than be replaced, many volunteers adapted to the new order. While previous historians have often drawn a sharp line between the volunteer forces of the early nineteenth-century and the “professional” fire fighters who followed, Tebeau shows that the change was not so drastic. Many individuals served in both forces. The development of paid fire forces did erode the distinct identities of different firehouses, creating a larger community of men bound by occupational identity.

That occupational identity also was closely bound to the technology that firemen employed. The author’s familiarity with the artifacts of firefighting and their use is impressively deep and consistent, and he successfully integrates it with the rest of the story. When steam engines eliminated the need for pumping, we learn, climbing ladders, scaling the sides of buildings, and performing daring rescues became the new marks of a firefighter’s ability.

Unmistakably, Tebeau chooses the firefighter as the protagonist of his story. The preface explains the identification; his father was a fireman. While the author grants fire underwriters much of the credit for the eventual control of urban fire, their story still comes across as something less than thrilling. Naturally, who wants to be an actuary when he grows up?

Viewed against the backdrop of firefighters’ manly physicality, Tebeau’s insurance men embody another ideal altogether: cool, cerebral, and one could even infer effete. Their main concerns were to manage the economic consequences of fire, and presumably, to earn a profit. Through the quantification of fire risk, underwriters reconceptualized fire in abstract, economic terms, taming it on paper. Tebeau describes the development of new tools that helped insurers reach this achievement: classification systems, standard procedures and forms, and representative technologies such as insurance maps.

To tell this part of his story, the author relies heavily on the records of two firms, the Aetna and the Insurance Company of North America, and also the records of the National Board of Underwriters. Unfortunately, neither firm was representative of the experience of the industry as a whole, and focusing on the national organization gives a misleading picture of the fire insurance industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, when local insurance cartels assumed the leading role in managing fire risk. In his study of Philadelphia and St. Louis, Tebeau takes notice of the local insurance boards, but concentrates almost exclusively on the local fire departments.

Overall, this text has been researched meticulously. The list of archival sources is impressive. An engaging narrative and a fascinating story make this book a rare pleasure — both an academic monograph and a good read. Of most immediate interest to historians of gender and urban America, it should also appeal to economic, business, and labor historians.

Dalit Baranoff recently received her Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University where she completed a dissertation entitled “Shaped By Risk: The American Fire Insurance Industry, 1790-1920.” In addition to continuing her research on the insurance industry, she is also currently participating in a project documenting the Dot Com Era at the University of Maryland.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII