Police, Fire and First Aid: First Responders in History

Policeman James Gelabert, 1890s, Washington, DC

If you write historical mysteries, you may be interested in these websites, where you can find information on police and fire uniforms and gear for the period in which your novel is set. Several of them look like good websites to browse for story ideas, as well.

 

POLICE HISTORY

ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF ARCHIVES AND HISTORY (U.S.)

This “crime and justice” subset of the “Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection” has interesting photos such as a 1915 police vehicle, a police commissioner’s uniform from the 1870s/80s, and photos of police versus demonstrators in the 1960s Civil Rights era.

 

NEW ZEALAND POLICE MUSEUM (NEW ZEALAND)

The Museum’s online exhibitions page offers early 19th century mug shots of criminals, plus bonus information on how criminals were identified before the invention of photography, and 19th century theories about the link between physical features and one’s likelihood of becoming a criminal.  Another section contains photographs of crime-associated objects, such as a cat-o-nine-tails, the black cap judges wore when passing a death sentence, an iron that a man used to kill his sister in 1928, and items from an abortionist’s kit.

 

TYRRELL HISTORICAL LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS: WILLIE BAUER POLICE DEPARTMENT SCRAPBOOKS (U.S.)

Beaumont, Texas was known as “Sin City” in the 1940s and ’50s, and the police department was notoriously corrupt, according to the “about” page for this collection. Willie Bauer was appointed police chief and charged with ending the corruption; his scrapbooks cover 1937 through 1982. A novelist trolling through these ought to be able to find interesting material on 20th century police corruption.

 

UTAH DIVISION OF ARCHIVES AND RECORDS SERVICE: OGDEN POLICE ARREST AND JAIL RECORD BOOKS, 1902-1941 (U.S.)

This collection contains “various record books documenting arrests made, and prisoners held, by the Ogden City Police Department.” Many of the arrest records have mug shots and physical descriptions. You could get ideas and examples of criminal activity from this source covering a smaller city in the U.S.’s Mountain West in the first half of the 20th century.

 

BRITISH TRANSPORT POLICE (U.K.)

The historical page of one of the oldest police forces in the world has some real goodies: there’s a subsection on some of the force’s most famous cases, with accompanying rogue’s gallery of mug shots, an historical timeline starting in 1676, sections on policewomen, historical use of dogs, famous incidents like the 2005 bomb attacks and the 1987 King’s Cross fire, plus links to other historical resources. This site is fascinating to just browse, if you love London and its history.

 

AUSTRALIAN POLICE (AUSTRALIA)

This is a “.com” website which states that it “is not affiliated directly with any policing authority but the greater percentage of users are police.” So use the information with caution. However, it does contain a lot of interesting historical material on Australian policing. There are illustrations of historical police uniforms, history of police vehicles, the role of a sheriff in Australia, and water police history. If your historical crime novel is set in Australia, you may want to use this as a jumping-off point for your research.

 

ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE (CANADA)

Royal Canadian Northwest Mounted Policeman on horseback, Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, ca.1917. Photo credit: Library of Congress control number 94504768

The history section of the RCMP’s website has subheadings for famous cases, examples of uniforms and equipment, the RCMP in the far north (useful if you are writing a “northern”), and a nice bibliography that will help if you need more information than what’s found on this website.

 

DETROIT HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S ONLINE COLLECTIONS (U.S.)

I wasn’t able to find a way to browse the Society’s online collections, but the link takes you to its search screen. Searching on “police” will get you 453 historical documents, mostly photographs, related to the Detroit police department. “Firemen” brings up over 130 hits. The police photographs include historical police vehicles, photos of various police stations, police women, etc.  If you choose “advance search” and put “police” in the “description” box and a specific year in the “date” box, you can limit your search to one year.  I searched on “1930” and viewed a photo of what a police radio setup looked like at the time.

 

LLOYD SEALY LIBRARY/JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE DIGITAL COLLECTIONS (U.S.)

Since this college’s emphasis is on criminal justice, its digital collections are a good source for police historical research. A collection of rare pamphlets on criminal issues has some as old as the 1670s, and one gruesome one addresses whether dead convicts in the Ohio Penitentiary in 1886 were skinned and the results used to fashion objects like canes. The site has another subsection of historical police images, and another that has digitized books and reports, such as prison inspections and police department annual reports. A set of trial transcripts from 1883-1927 might give detective novelists some good story ideas, and several collections of private policemen’s papers ditto.

 

FIRE HISTORY

TYRRELL HISTORICAL LIBRARY DIGITAL COLLECTIONS: FIRE MUSEUM OF TEXAS PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION  (U.S.)

Firemen at work, 1733. Photo credit: Library of Congress control number 2002709179

The city of Beaumont in southeast Texas hosts this fire museum online collection of photographs. On the left of this page you can click on the subjects “trucks” or “fire fighting—equipment and supplies” to see if equipment used in your novel’s era is available to view.  An option to limit the search by date is available. I found pictures of fire horse rigs, old tools, and a 1924 funeral procession.

 

UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON DIGITAL LIBRARY: HOUSTON FIRE DEPARTMENT (U.S.)

This site states: “from the late 1800s through the 1980s, the digital collection features images of fire trucks, fire stations, firefighters in action battling blazes, and some of the department’s Fire Chiefs through the decades.” There are over 190 photos. View fire horses, a fire department band, a rail car fire at a chemical plant, firemen in uniform next to a 1962 engine, among others.

 

LONDON FIRE BRIGADE (U.K.)

This “history and stories” section of the organization’s website has a lot of good material: the Great Fire of 1666 and how it led to fire insurance companies, how the Fire Service helped protect military equipment in the days leading up to the June 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe, photos of historical fire equipment, and history-changing fires, such as the one at Smithfield Market in 1958, and the “frozen fire” at Butler’s Wharf in 1931. Some good story ideas here.

 

NEW YORK CITY FIRE MUSEUM (U.S.)

Firemen’s Equipments, H.T. Gratacap, 1868. Photo credit: Library of Congress control number 2003680886

This “permanent exhibitions” section of the Museum’s website offers slideshows of parade vehicles and regalia, historical apparatus, historical tools and uniforms, and objects from the 9/11 Memorial Room.  There are also galleries of New York fire insurance building marks, firefighting on water in boats, and firefighting in the 1970s.

 

HALL OF FLAME MUSEUM OF FIREFIGHTING (U.S.)

The “collections” page of this Arizona museum offers photos of historic fire extinguisher equipment, fire marks from the U.S., U.K. and Europe and a few examples of fire helmets. Also, if you click on “Hand and Horse-Drawn Apparatus,” the site will display a chart of equipment dating as far back as 1725. Click on the name of the apparatus and a photo will display. There’s also a section of photos of motorized fire vehicles dating back to 1910. The “related websites” link will take you to other historical fire-related websites.

 

 

 

BOSTON FIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY (U.S.)

James D. Halloran, a fireman attached to Engine Company no. 20 of this city (N.Y.) is the inventor … smoke mask … , 1911. Photo credit: Library of Congress control number 2004682135

The landing page of this website offers subsections on Archives, Apparatus, Artifacts, Fire Alarms, Firehouses, and more. The Archives section has annual reports, fire stereo views from 1872, and a PDF document on the history of the department. The Apparatus subsection has lots of photos of historic equipment—there are 34 ladder companies alone and each one you click on offers slideshows with multiple historical images. There’s another subsection on Boston fire history before 1859, including fire buckets from 1760 and 1826. Lots of good stuff on this site—even fireman-themed sheet music!

 

WIKIPEDIA/ FIRE MUSEUMS

The link above will take you to a page in Wikipedia that lists and has links to fire museums around the world.

 

 

 

 

FIRST AID HISTORY

ASHI AND MEDIC FIRST AID BLOG, “HISTORY OF FIRST AID KITS,” JAN. 29, 2019 (U.S.)

This site is a “.com” and it has no “about us” information that I could find, which are two red flags for academics looking for authoritative websites to use for research.  However, the parent company’s website seems to be for a firm that provides training for emergency care workers.  So I think this blog post is still worth consulting by historical novelists, even though you may want to double check the information with another source. The blog post has photos of early first aid kits, even specialized ones like those provided to railroad or telephone workers. So if you have a character in the late 19th or early 20th century in a situation calling for first aid, this post may help you describe what your character is using from a kit to save someone’s life.

 

GOLD CROSS EMS AMBULANCE COLLECTION (U.S.)

[B]oston, Massachusetts. An American Red Cross ambulance used by the blood donor service. Photo credit: Library of Congress control number 2017872447

Once again, this is a “.com” site rather than “.org” or “.gov”: it’s by an ambulance firm based in Augusta, Georgia.  But its webpage has some neat photos of historical ambulance vehicles, going back to the 1880s. If your novel contains a situation where a late 19th/early 20th century American character is being taken to a hospital, this site will help you describe what the ambulance looked like.

 

AMBULANCE HERITAGE SOCIETY (U.K.)

This U.K. organization is dedicated to “preserving and promoting the history of the ambulance, the vehicles, equipment, uniforms, techniques and the evolution throughout the years for generations to come.” The link above takes you to the organization’s page of historical vehicles, from 1943-2005. The site also has a page with some historical medical equipment, although the pictures are not dated. At the bottom of the page, the viewer is urged to contact the society for more information about historical equipment.

 

KILMER HOUSE BLOG (U.S.)

Contents of the American Red Cross first aid box, industrial, 1920. Photo credit: Library of Congress control number 2017677102

The blog is about the history of the Johnson & Johnson Company, producers of medical and consumer goods. This particular blog entry celebrates the 125th birthday of the first aid kit. It has some photos of historical kits, a price list from 1888, and a brief history of how the company’s founder’s conversation with a railway surgeon led to the creation of the first aid kit. Again, this is a “.com” website, from a commercial firm trying to sell products, but it could still give a novelist some ideas.

 

CPR & FIRST AID CARDIOVASCULAR CARE (U.S.)

This site is hosted by the American Heart Association, and its historical page contains an extensive timeline on cardiopulmonary resuscitation from 1732 to the present. If you are writing an historical detective novel and an injured character needs to be revived, you may want to check this site for the resuscitation methods known at that time period.

 

 

 

About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.

 

 


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