Today’s artifact was a special request* from a volunteer, who wanted to learn more about the toy fire engine on display in the “kids’ bedroom” in the Beall-Dawson House. If you spot something in the museum and want to know more, you can ask the docent or – if you’re on a self-guided tour – check out the listing in the room guidebook; but if you need to delve deeper, please let me know! There’s always more to say about an artifact than will fit in our little guidebooks.

This horse-drawn fire pumper wagon is made of cast iron, measures 12 inches from horse nose to back wheel, and was originally painted in bright yellow, red, blue, black and gold. Much of the paint has worn off, and in fact this photo shows it looking a little spiffier than usual thanks to the camera flash; in normal light, and from behind the room barrier, it looks rather dull.  Let’s give it a chance to look colorful once more.

Cast iron toys were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often involved moving parts: mechanical banks, clockwork trains, pull-toys with clanging bells, cap pistols, even working steam engines. According to Richard O’Brien, author of The Story of American Toys (1990), cast-iron was “a peculiarly American material . . . rarely used elsewhere for toys.” In the days before plastics, though, cast iron was sturdy, moldable, and relatively inexpensive – perfect for the toy industry. A large number of companies produced mechanical toys in cast iron, often along very similar lines; variations on the horse-drawn fire pumper were produced by Hubley, Kenton, and Ives, among others. Our particular example is unmarked (other than the number “870” impressed on the underside), and while there are many similar examples in books and online – most dated to the very early 20th century – I haven’t found a specific match with an identified maker.

Above: cast iron fire engine toys in the 1900 Sears catalog, “handsomely painted in bright colors . . . strong, interesting and durable.”

Toy fire engines have had a long-lasting, and obvious, appeal. Real fire engines are fast and highly noticeable, and fire fighting is an important and exciting job. Remember this post, where Mr. Prout (1840) cautioned his children against messing around with the equipment at the nearby firehouse? I bet the young Prouts had some kind of fire engine toy or make-believe fire-fighting game. Toys like this one help us make connections between our own childhood and that of our ancestors. Relatively faithful toy versions of the ‘real thing,’ in this case a steam-boiler pumper, can also tell us about old technologies; though they might seem primitive to us today, steam-powered hose pumpers were a big improvement over hand-pumped water. Here’s a restored steam fire engine, if you want to compare it to our little one (and learn more about how they work).

As for this particular toy itself, it was donated by Eugenie LeMerle Riggs (1904-2003) in the 1990s. From conversations with the donor it appears that she collected antique toys as an adult, but this piece may have belonged to her as a child in Washington DC – or perhaps she purchased the antique toy for her own sons to play with, when they were growing up in Ashton. Eagle-eyed toy collectors may notice that our toy has acquired some extra bits, including a back-up driver who can be seen chillin’ on the side in some of the pictures, and a spare crank or wheel which I keep sticking on top of the boiler (where it does not belong) to keep it from getting lost.

So when you visit us, keep an eye out for our little fire engine, and let me know what else you’ve noticed in the museum that deserves some extra attention!

*Yes, if you make a request, it will make it onto the blog eventually! It’s not just because – in this case – the inquirer was my father. (Hi, Dad!)