The History of Benjamin Franklin: Founder of The Union Fire Company
Cover Photo: Eric Okdeh
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by John Bigelow
This fire company was formed Dec. 7, 1736. It was designed primarily for the security of property of its members, though they did not limit their usefulness to their own members when their property was not in danger. The Union Fire Company was in active service as late as 1791. In a roll of companies of that day we find it heading the list, having thirty members, one engine, two hundred and fifty buckets, thirteen ladders, two hooks, no bags, and one eighty-foot rope. (p. 250)
Franklin, B., & Bigelow, J. (1869). Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Article IV of the Union Fire Company
IV. That we will, all of us, upon hearing of FIRE breaking out, immediately repair to the same with at least one-half of our buckets and bags, and there exert our best endeavors to extinguish such fire, and preserve the goods and effects of such of us as may be in danger. And if more than one of us shall be in danger at one time, we will divide ourselves with the remainder of our buckets and bags as nearly as may be, to be equally helpful. And to prevent suspicious persons from coming into or carrying any goods out of such houses as may be in danger, two of our members shall constantly attend at the doors until all the goods and effects that can be saved are packed up and carried to a place of safety. And upon hearing the cry of FIRE in the night-time we will immediately cause sufficient lights to be distributed in such parts of the houses of such of our company as may be thought in danger, in order to prevent confusion and enable their friends to give them more speedy and effectual assistance. And moreover, as this association is intended for a general benefit, we do further agree, that whenever a FIRE breaks out in any part of the city, though none of our houses, goods or effects may be in apparent danger, we will nevertheless repair thither with our buckets and bags as before mentioned, and give our utmost assistance to such of our fellow-citizens as may stand in need of it, in the same manner as if they belonged to this company. (p. 251-252)
Franklin, B., & Bigelow, J. (1869). Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Excerpts pages (248-252)
Read this book by scanning this QR Code
Resources & Websites
Articles of the Union Fire Company
The seventh Day of December, in the Year of our Lord One thousand seven hundred and thirty six, we whose Names are hereunto subscribed, reposing special Confidence in each others Friendship, Do, for the better preserving our Goods and Effects from Fire, mutually agree in Manner following, That is to say.
1. That we will each of us at his own proper Charge provide Two Leathern Buckets, and Four Baggs of good Oznabrigs or wider Linnen, Whereof each Bagg shall contain four Yards at least, and shall have a running Cord near the Mouth; Which said Buckets and Baggs shall be marked with the Initial Letters of our respective Names and Company Thus [A.B. & Company]7 and shall be apply'd to no other Use than for preserving our Goods and Effects in Case of Fire as aforesaid.
2. That if any one of us shall fail to provide and keep his Buckets and Baggs as aforesaid he shall forfeit and pay unto the Clerk for the Time being, for the Use of the Company, the Sum of Five Shillings for every Bucket and Bagg wanting.
3. That if any of the Buckets or Baggs aforesaid shall be lost or damaged at any Fire aforesaid The same shall be supplyed and repaired at the Charge of the whole Company.
4. That we will all of us, upon hearing of Fire breaking out at or near any of our Dwelling Houses, immediately repair to the same with all our Buckets and Baggs, and there employ our best Endeavours to preserve the Goods and Effects of such of us as shall be in Danger by Packing the same into our Baggs: And if more than one of us shall be in Danger at the same time, we will divide our selves as near as may be to be equally helpful. And to prevent suspicious Persons from coming into, or carrying any Goods out of, any such House, Two of our Number shall constantly attend at the Doors until all the Goods and Effects that can be saved shall be secured in our Baggs, and carryed to some safe Place, to be appointed by such of our Company as shall be present, Where one or more of us shall attend them 'till they can be conveniently delivered to, or secured for, the Owner.
5. That we will meet together in the Ev'ning of the last Second Day of the Week commonly called Monday, in every Month, at some convenient Place and Time to be appointed at each Meeting, to consider of what may be further useful in the Premises; And whatsoever shall be expended at every Meeting aforesaid shall be paid by the Members met. And if any Member shall neglect to meet as aforesaid, he shall forfeit and pay the Sum of One Shilling.
6. That we will each of us in our Turns, according to the Order of our Subscriptions, serve the Company as Clerk for the Space of one Month, Viz. That Member whose Name is hereunto first subscribed shall serve first, and so on to the last, Whose Business shall be to inspect the Condition of each of our Buckets and Baggs, and to make Report thereof at every Monthly Meeting aforesaid, To collect all the Fines and Forfeitures accruing by Virtue hereof; To warn every Member of the Time and Place of Meeting, at least Six Hours before Hand. And if any new Member be proposed to be admitted, or any Alteration to be made in any of the present Articles, he shall inform every Member thereof at the Time of Warning a[foresaid.] And shall also read over a Copy of these Presents, and a List of all the Subscribers Names, at every Monthly Meeting, before the Company proceeds to any other Bu[siness,] Which said Clerk shall be accountable to the Rest of the Company for, and pay [to] the next succeeding Clerk, all the Monies accruing or belonging unto the Company by virtue of these presents. And if any Member shall refuse to serve as Clerk in his Turn aforesaid, he shall forfeit the Sum of Five Shillings.
7. That our Company shall not exceed the Number of twenty-five Persons a[t a] time, no new Member be admitted, nor any Alteration made in these present Ar[ticles] until the Monthly Meeting after the same is first proposed, and the whole Company acquainted therewith by the Clerk as aforesaid; Nor without the Consent of Three Fourths of our whole Number, the whole Three Fourths being met. But the other Affairs relating to the Company shall be determined by Three Fourths of Members met. And that the Time of entring upon Business shall be one Hour after the Time appointed for Meeting as aforesaid.
8. That each Member shall keep two Lists of all the Subscribers Names, [one] to be fixed in open View near the Buckets and Baggs, and the Other to be pr[oduced] at every Monthly Meeting if required under pain of forfeiting the Sum of [six?] Pence.
9. That all Fines and Forfeitures arising by Virtue hereof, shall be paid unto the Clerk for the Time being, for the Use of the Company, and shall be erected into a common Stock. And if any Member shall refuse to pay any Fine or Forfeiture aforesaid when due, his Name shall be razed out, And he shall from thenceforth be excluded the Company.
10. Lastly that upon the Death of any of our Company, the Survivors shall in time of Danger as aforesaid, be aiding to the Widow of such Decedent during her Widowhood, in the same Manner as if her Husband had been living; she only keeping the Buckets and Baggs as aforesaid. In Witness whereof we have hereunto set our Hands; Dated the Day and Year abovesaid.
"Articles of the Union Fire Company, 7 December 1736," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-02-02-0024. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2, January 1, 1735, through December 31, 1744, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 150–154.]
Though men had banned together to fight fires in other cities well before 1736, the Union Fire Company was the first formally organized company. At the helm of its formation was Benjamin Franklin, who announced the city's needs for fire engines and firefighters in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, in the early 1730s. In December 1736, Franklin and twenty-four other citizens, including William Rawle, Edward Shippen, and Benjamin Shoemaker, came together to create the Union Fire Company's articles of agreement. Unlike other fire societies that generally assisted only their paying members when fires occured, members of the Union Fire Company resolved to help anyone in distress.
Politician, printer, inventor, diplomat, author, scientist—Benjamin Franklin will forever be remembered as a man of many talents. But not everyone knows the founding father was also a volunteer firefighter who at age 30 established Philadelphia's first fire department. Tom Lingenfelter, president of the Heritage Collectors' Society in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, recently announced his discovery of a relic from this fascinating phase of Franklin's career: a document listing his name and those of the Union Fire Company's other members, thought to date to 1736.
Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin left home and moved to Philadelphia at age 17. His adoptive hometown still bears numerous traces of his extraordinary legacy, from the University of Pennsylvania to America's first lending library, the Library Company of Philadelphia. One of the city's most central and successful public figures from a very young age, Franklin cofounded the Union Fire Company, an all-volunteer brigade, in 1736.
"When Franklin starts the volunteer fire department in 1736, he's sort of an up-and-coming guy," said Libby O'Connell, HISTORY's chief historian. "He's working his way up the rungs of civil and professional life. By founding the volunteer fire department in Philadelphia, he's setting himself up as a civic leader." He was likely inspired by America's first professional fire department, established in his native Boston in the 17th century, O'Connell explained.
Roster From Ben Franklin's Fire Department Found - HISTORY
Photo Credits: Heritage Collectors' Society, Inc.
The Union Fire Company was the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia and more importantly, the first formed in the United States. Founded in 1736 by Benjamin Franklin, members were required to keep and maintain their own buckets and linen salvage bags to help douse flames and carry away the personal items of those exposed to the ravages of fire.
Each member was further required to make and keep two lists of the names of each member of the company. One list was to remain posted by his bags and buckets; the other was to be carried and presented at all fire company meetings. This list was one of two lists belonging to Joseph Paschall, a member of Philadelphia's Common Council.
At the time this list was made, Paschall was serving as the Union's clerk. The job of clerk rotated monthly between members, as did the position of names on the list. Since Paschall's name headed this list, he was the current clerk of the company. It most certainly was the list he carried with him as is evidenced by the folds in the paper. A lack of holes indicates that it had never been posted. Additionally, the list matches the sequence of members recorded in the manuscript minute book of the Union Fire Company now in possession of the Library Company of Philadelphia signifying that Paschal was the Company's first clerk.
The Union's membership featured some of the most prominent Philadelphians of the era. Most notably on this list is Benjamin Franklin, celebrated printer, scientist, entrepreneur and statesman. Other names include: Richard Sewell, Sheriff of Philadelphia; Edward Roberts, Mayor; Edward Shippen, Judge; Philip Syng, Silversmith and Official; Samuel Powel, Jr., Merchant; George Emlen, Brewer; Charles Willing, Official; Hugh Roberts, Hospital Director; Joseph Turner, Sea Captain and Merchant.
Small "X's" are marked before and after each name. "X's" on the right of each name are in the same ink as the document. "X's" before each name are in pencil. Paschall's name is the only one not marked with an a pencil "X." Research has uncovered no other surviving example of a similar list either in private or public hands. This fine and exceedingly rare document appears to be the only remaining Union Fire Company roster in existence.
History of the Philadelphia Fire Department - Mural Arts
About the Project
History of the Philadelphia Fire Department, located at Philadelphia's Engine 8, Ladder 2 Firehouse, honors and celebrates the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) and its several-hundred-year evolution from early beginnings as a volunteer organization co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1736. This 1,400-square-foot mural showcases moments from the department's history, such as original horse-drawn wagons, modern technologies, and specific moments of tragedy and triumph that have transformed public safety in Philadelphia.
When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.