Origins of Fire Prevention Week

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, November 15, 1911: There was a fire near Watsontown about noon or a little afterwards. Four of the boys took the afternoon off and hurried away to find out the happenings. Tomorrow they have some work to do. I wouldn’t like to be they, for part of what they have to do is rather difficult.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

A hundred years ago devastating fires occurred much more frequently than they do today.  Fire codes often were non-existent—and when they did exist they were less stringent than today.

Many homes and businesses were heated with wood or coal stoves, and if the chimneys weren’t cleaned properly, creosote could build up and catch fire.  And, when a fire occurred, it took longer for firefighters to arrive on the scene—and the firefighting equipment they used had many limitations.

"New" buildings in downtown Milton. These buildings were built after the Great Milton Fire of 1880.

People in towns and cities across the US had memories of  “Great Fires.” For example, in the diary Grandma often mentioned shopping in nearby Milton.  There had been a horrible fire that burned most of Milton on May 14, 1880, so when Grandma went shopping she would have been going into “modern” buildings  that were  only about 30 years old. Her parents and other adults would have remembered the fire–and probably told stories about its devastation.

George Venios in Chronicles and Legends of Milton described the Great Milton Fire:

At fifteen minutes before twelve o’clock the steam whistles at the Milton Car Works began to sound frantically but since it was so near to the noon lunch hour, few noticed the importance of the distress signal. A man on horseback charged down Broadway screaming over and over from the top of his lungs for all to hear–“FIRE! — FIRE AT THE CAR WORKS!” . . .

The fire spread rapidly . . . Buildings were crashing and burning like kindling. . .

In less than four hours, almost all of Milton was decimated. Nearly 125 acres burned, consuming 625 buildings . . . Over 3,000 people were left homeless.

So many disastrous fires occurred across the U.S. a hundred years ago, that there was even discussion of creating another holiday called Fire Prevention Day. According to the November 11, 1911 issue of The Youth’s Companion magazine:

Fire-Prevention Day

Shall we give ourselves another holiday? The suggestion is made that we take October 9th, the date of the great Chicago fire, and, in spite of its nearness to Columbus day, observe it as Fire-Prevention Day.

That course is urged by Governor Hadley of Missouri, prompted, perhaps, by the burning last winter of the Capitol at Jefferson City with many priceless records. It was urged also by the National Fire Marshals’ Association in convention in Albany, New York, where also the state Capitol was recently damaged by fire. . .

If a day could be given to cleaning up waste places, to inspecting danger spots, to punishing those who violate the building laws, to having fire-drills in schools and factories, to installing and testing fire-fighting devices, and in general, to stimulating a keener sense of the waste of fire, it would be so valuable a holiday that it might well be made monthly, rather than yearly.

But would another holiday, whatever its name, be so usefully employed?

It’s awesome  that there was interest in creating a holiday that would be dedicated to the public good a hundred years ago.

Fire Prevention Day never became a national holiday, but the idea eventually later morphed into Fire Prevention Week. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first Fire Prevention Week.

Now the National Fire Protection Association sponsors National Protection Week each year. It  is held during the week that contains October 9 (the date of the Great Chicago Fire).  During that week schools often have activities about fire prevention, the media publishes safety tips, fire stations hold open houses, and so on.

2 Responses

  1. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and we observed Fire Prevention Week. We had a great parade; all the high school bands participated. We also had firemen – they were men, then – come talk to us in school. I didn’t know the origins of the holiday. Thanks for this information.

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