BY JIM MERCIER
This month’s article involves something that you probably walk by almost every day, but rarely ever pay attention to, until you need one. Yes, I’m referring to the common fire extinguisher, which has been used in public buildings, factories, schools, stores, and even in the home for a long time. AND, it’s interesting to note that not one, but TWO manufacturers once made these indispensable units right here in Racine, going back to the 1890s. So, let’s read on and gain even more knowledge about Racine’s history!
But first, let’s examine how these old fire extinguishers actually worked. Remember learning many years ago that fire requires oxygen and fuel in order to burn? Well, combining baking soda and acid produces carbon dioxide, which can smother small fires by removing their source of oxygen. These old fire extinguishers did just that, and were heavily relied upon to put out small fires before they had a chance to spread and cause considerable property damage.
Often constructed of polished brass and copper, these soda-acid fire extinguishers were activated by turning the unit upside down, thus mixing the baking soda with the acid water, producing carbon dioxide (or, CO2, as we remember from chemistry class). The tank itself was actually made of copper, while the screw-on cap on top of the unit, as well as the front label (or badge), were constructed of brass. They were also equipped with a rubber hose and nozzle. These beautiful old polished brass and copper fire extinguishers are highly collectable these days, and are often found in antique stores, auction sites, and even in high-end home decorating stores. Unfortunately, they are also highly prized by thieves, who are delighted to sell them for their scrap value.
As mentioned, two Racine companies were involved in their manufacture, and I’m happy to say that one of them is still in business! The earliest Racine-made extinguisher was made by the Racine Fire Engine Co., which was located on 6th Street, by the viaduct. They started here in the early-to-mid 1890s, and were manufacturers and jobbers of a variety of fire department equipment exclusively. Their products included the three-gallon “Racine” fire extinguisher, horse-drawn chemical fire engines, aerial ladders, hook & ladder trucks (horse drawn), hose wagons and carts, asbestos fire suits, and other fire department products and supplies. In 1901, however, the moved their Racine operation to South Milwaukee, where they remained for some time.
The other company that manufactured Racine-made fire extinguishers was the Racine Wire and Iron Company. Organized in 1870 as the Racine Wire Cloth Company, they are still in business, and currently located at the corner of Prospect and Superior streets, just west of Douglas Avenue. Some of their earlier products included weaved brass and copper cloth, wire and iron rails, fences, wire guards for machinery, elevator enclosures, window guards, wire utensils for the kitchen, and of course, the “approved” chemical fire extinguisher. They also manufactured a 40-gallon fire extinguisher cart on large wooden wheels called, the “Champion,” which was used extensively in factories and institutions. Their common two-gallon extinguisher was produced primarily during the teens and very early twenties, however. One mystery that I haven’t been able to solve yet is why the company named their fire extinguisher the “Chicago” (“Racine” was already taken by the Racine Fire Engine Co., as seen in the photos).
It’s interesting to note that it is very difficult to find any Racine-made fire extinguishers anymore. If you are fortunate enough to discover one at a local rummage sale for a few bucks, I would suggest you snap it up…they often sell for well over $100 at auctions or antique stores.
Jim Mercier is an avid collector of Racine historical memorabilia. Some of his collection is in the Racine Business Center’s Spirit of Racine Entrepreneur’s exhibit. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.