NEW YORK -- Nighttime in Nieuw Amsterdam. The fire rattle, a ratchet-type noisemaker, sounded the alarm. All over the colony, householders threw open the shutters and tossed their buckets to the street, where they were scooped up by the bucket brigade that was running to the conflagration.
From bucket brigades to microwave dispatching, the history of firefighting and its impact on city history unfolded in a collection of ceremonial regalia and working equipment at the Fire Museum here.
In 1648, when Peter Stuyvesant formed the city's first volunteer fire service, every household was required to have two buckets. They were made of leather by shoemakers, because leather is lighter than wood and less likely to break when thrown. When the fire was over, all the buckets were piled in the square and owners claimed theirs with the aid of distinctive decorations.
The museum's artifacts include buckets, rattles, axes, ladders, alarm boxes, fire poles, nozzles, fire nets, helmets and badges.
The exhibits highlight famous blazes such as the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed much of the financial district and led to the development of wide cross-town streets to serve as firebreaks; the Triangle Shirt Waist fire of 1911, which forced major building code reforms, and the 23rd Street fire of 1966, in which 12 firefighters died.
The museum's real treasures are its antique pieces of apparatus, from a 1765 wood and gleaming brass hand pumper to the newest piece in the collection, a 1912 steam pumper driven by a crank-start tractor motor.
And there's Boss Tweed's engraved trumpet, a kind of megaphone used to shout commands, which symbolizes the powerful role volunteer fire companies played in city politics.
William Marcy Tweed, boss of Tammany Hall, whose name is synonymous with corruption, used his influence as chief of the Americus 6 Company to build a political base.
"In the old days, it was distinguished to belong to a fire company -- the Roosevelts, the Lorillards of tobacco fame, all belonged," said John Mulligan, a Fire Department spokesman and resident historian. "But the volunteers began to attract a rowdy element in the late 1840s and 1850s. They wound up fighting each other instead of fires -- rivalry, I suppose."
There were 125 volunteer companies at the time of the Civil War, trying to outdo each other in terms of parade regalia, badges, helmet ornaments, equipment -- and performance. Often a meeting of volunteer companies at a crossroads or narrow street led to a brawl to prevent a competing company from getting to the fire first.
By this time, with the city's population at nearly 1 million, insurance underwriters and the professional city Police Department were pushing for reform.
The volunteer era ended in 1865 when the state Legislature created the Metropolitan Fire Department.
The museum also houses the world's largest collection of fire marks, the insignias that showed volunteer fire companies which insurer would reimburse them if they saved a building.
The Home Insurance Company gave the city the collection in 1983 on the condition that it be displayed in a suitable home. The donation prompted the city to replace its aging, cramped fire museum with a $1.3 million renovation of a 1904 Beaux Arts-style firehouse in Little Italy.