Exactly one hundred years ago in Salem, people were flocking to the Essex Institute to see a piece of Salem history that had recently been returned to their fair city: a Georgian fire-fighting engine, by all contemporary accounts the oldest in America. Here we see a complete reversal of the situation we find ourselves in now, with the Essex Institute’s successor, the Peabody Essex Museum, shipping out the city’s material history rather advocating for its return—and showcasing it. The Union hand-tub engine was imported from Great Britain by one of Salem’s first private fire-fighting companies, the Union Fire Club, established in 1748. In the following year the company placed its order for one of Richard Newsham’s recently-patented “water engines for the quenching and extinguishing of fires”, and it arrived in Salem in 1750.
A Newsham Engine of similar vintage @Colonial Williamsburg.
The Union was in service for quite some time as far as I can tell, but by the middle of the nineteenth century both its technology and its company was obsolete: steam and public fire-fighting departments were replacing hand-tubs and clubs. On a ceremonial visit to Philadelphia in the summer of 1866, a few remaining members of the then Union and Naumkeag Fire Club gifted their hosts, the William Penn Hose Company, with the Union. This provoked a “great hue and a cry” at home in Salem, but the old engine was not returned until 1917: and right into the Essex Institute it went. (I am wondering if Salem’s experience of conflagration in 1914 inspired the City of Brotherly Love to return the Union as a sympathetic gesture, but cannot find any confirmation of this theory).
Robert Newall photograph of the William Penn Hose Company in Philadelphia with their steam engines, 1865, The Library Company; Harper’s Weekly photograph of the Union, “the oldest fire-engine in the United States” in 1866; a photograph of the Union in an article announcing its return to Salem in The American City, January 1918.
You can easily discern how important the threat of fire and the organization of fire-fighting was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by browsing through the online catalog of the Phillips Library, where the papers of the Union and Naumkeag Club are held, along with its predecessor club, the Union and Essex, and myriad other fire clubs: the Active, Alert and Amity clubs, Engine #9, the Enterprise Club, the Franklin Hook & Ladder No. 1, the Friend Engine Company, the Old Fire Club, the Social Club, the Reliance Hose Company, and the Relief Fire Club, among others. I do appreciate the PEM’s digitized library catalog, although it does not quite compensate for the lack of digitized items, or their removal from Salem. However, as I have been meeting and talking to people who have much longer associations with the PEM’s predecessors and the Phillips Library than I do, I am increasingly aware that they are missing objects as much as texts, and those objects are difficult to locate, both on the web and in reality. In the company of the “world-class” museums it claims to be, the Peabody Essex does not seem to be committed to comparative open access, to either its texts or its objects. Several years ago, one could search through a “collection gateway” that seemed to yield access to a good part of the PEM collections (it can still be accessed here but appears to be functional only in accessing items from the Native American collection), now we can only see selected “highlights”. Try comparing the collections portals of say, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even the Worcester Art Museum, with that of the Peabody Essex Museum: and see how little you will yield. I wouldn’t know where to find the Union online: the Phillips Library finding aid description states that both it and an oil painting entitled The Union Hand-Tub by W.B. Eaton are in the PEM collections, but they are both absolutely unattainable in both digital and actual forms: a regression, certainly, from 1918.
The Union and some fire buckets were featured prominently in a 1978 Essex Institute booklet: Museum Collections of the Essex Institute by Huldah Smith Payson, and fortunately for us, one of those very same buckets is one of the PEM’s online highlights of its American art collection.