At the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library in Lexington, Massachusetts, we actively collect objects to strengthen and improve our existing holdings. Our primary strength is American Masonic and fraternal items and we look for things that tell an engaging story, are in good condition and do not duplicate our existing holdings. In 2014, I was contacted by an antiques dealer who had a fascinating painted leather fire bucket for sale. The bucket was in nice condition and had a Masonic square and compasses symbol on the front above a pair of clasped hands and the name “J. Beach.” At the top of the bucket, a painted banner read “Friendship in Adversity.” On first glance it looked like a terrific addition to our collection. [It was recently (in 1/2016) up for sale again, this time at Sotheby's Americana Week sales in New York City - see it here.]
My first step was to analyze it according to our collecting criteria as described above. So I searched our collections database to see just how many fire buckets we already have. Imagine my surprise to find the one pictured here, which the Museum purchased in 1981 – it was almost identical to the photo that the dealer had sent me! While we are fortunate to have a large storage area at the Museum, space is always finite, so I passed on buying the second one and promptly did some research on the one we already owned.
Antiques are rare and valued for a reason – as time passes objects break, get lost, thrown away and disintegrate. Yet, before they became antiques, they were often common household items. While it was surprising to turn up two fire buckets with almost identical decoration, it shouldn’t be unexpected. During the 1700s and early 1800s, most households had at least a couple of buckets like these ones. They were often the most effective way to combat a fire. Local residents could line up and form a bucket brigade passing buckets from hand to hand to try and quench the blaze. Decorating them with symbols and the owner’s name meant that they would be easy to return when the fire was over.
Groups of local residents also formed fire companies or societies to assist with fighting fires in their neighborhoods. It makes sense that these local groups would procure fire buckets with similar decoration – as is the case with these two buckets. The Museum’s bucket is almost identical to the one that was owned by J. Beach – virtually the only difference is the owner’s name – Z. Stevens – and the date it was presumably made – 1799. Thanks to an email with a colleague at the National Museum of American History, I was able to determine that John Beach and Zachariah Stevens were members of the Masonick Fire Society in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Formed in 1789, the Masonick Fire Society aimed to “be helpful to each other in extinguishing [fires in Gloucester], and in saving and taking the utmost care of each other’s goods.” The printed “Rules and Orders” go on to require that each member “always keep ready, two good Leather Buckets, and two strong bags.” Members of the Society were also required to be “an approved Mason.” Indeed, both John Beach and Zachariah Stevens, who owned the fire buckets, were members of Gloucester’s Tyrian Lodge. Beach was raised in 1779 and served the lodge as Master in 1802. Stevens was raised in 1804.
Thanks again to my colleague at the National Museum of American History, I discovered that Stevens was a witness to the “sea serpent” sighted in Gloucester in 1817. Starting in August 1817 and continuing for the next few years, reports of a strange sea creature off the coast of Gloucester began to circulate. The accuracy of these accounts was debated throughout the country and never conclusively resolved. But this rather outlandish tale adds another layer of interesting history to Stevens’ Masonic fire bucket. And keep your eyes peeled – there may be more fire buckets just like this one waiting to be discovered!
Masonic Fire Bucket, 1799, unidentified maker, probably Gloucester, Massachusetts. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Collection, Special Acquisitions Fund, 81.48.