The splendour and misery of urban life
Some suggestions to the Montreal fire committee, the practicability of which is self-evident
April 12,1873, 19th century
Ink on newsprint - Photolithography
20 x 26.4 cm
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Cartoon (19139) , Print (10661) , social (690)
Keys to History
There were numerous fires in Montreal in the 19th century. The huge fire of 1852 was especially devastating: it raged for 26 hours, consuming almost half of the buildings in the city and leaving some 9,000 people homeless.
Montreal's urban architecture changed dramatically in the second half of the century. Numerous four- , five- and six-storey buildings were built downtown, with the result that the fire department's equipment became outdated. The fire chief noted this in his annual report for 1867, urging action on the issue, but his alarm call was ignored.
On March 18, 1873, fire broke out at the St. James Hotel, a five-storey building. Firefighters couldn't reach the highest floors because their ladders weren't long enough! Five people died in the fire, much to public indignation. This cartoon was published in April, after the disaster. It wasn't until after this hotel fire that the city allocated $15, 000 to purchase new equipment, including a new aerial ladder called a "Skinner."
Reacting to the absurdity of the situation and the ineffectiveness of the fire department's equipment, the cartoonist imagined and drew the most ludicrous ladders.
In Montreal, public services such as fire prevention developed in the 19th century, a period of major population growth largely due to industrialization.
This cartoon was published in the weekly The Canadian Illustrated News on April 12, 1873. The article accompanying it recommended that the Montreal Fire Department follow the example of its German counterparts, which at the time apparently used very efficient ladders.
It was not until 1863 that Montreal's fire department, which was created in 1841, hired professional, full-time firefighters. There were also three units of volunteer firefighters providing support.