Friday, April 18, 2008

In case of fire…throw grenade!

At first, none of the group working to catalog historical artifacts at the old county courthouse building in Shelby could identify the object that volunteer Rebecca Love, M. D., right, had on the worktable before her.

The strange-looking device had an accession number on it, though, and from that and the label, Dr. Love was able to give it a name and a bit of history.

“It’s a fire extinguisher for manual use,” she said, donated to the former historical museum many years ago by the Kings Mountain Fire Department. How was it used? She pointed to the label: “Throw bulb at base of flame.”
Apparently, no one ever threw this particular device. Its frosted globe top and shiny metal base are in excellent shape. Whatever flame-killing liquid it might have held, however, seems long dried up – shaken gently, it seems to have grains or crystals inside. But the label is clear, bearing the name of the Out-o-Matic Co. of 1737 E. 31st St. in Denver, Colo., and various identifying numbers.

For any who are interested, the volunteers thought, it should be easy enough to follow up and learn more detail about home firefighting in days gone by. But follow-up turned out to be tough and tantalizing. For starters:

-- No one reached at the Kings Mountain Fire Department could immediately recall the device or donating it.

-- An Internet search at first turned up no useful results: no Out-o-Matic, no vintage fire extinguisher, no fire globe, no search term that yielded a description or image of a device like this.

Then came a breakthrough, and it was a good thing on Martha Stewart’s website that unlocked the puzzle. Her interview with a firefighting historian covered the evolution of extinguishing devices, from the leather buckets and warning rattlers that colonists used to early water “syringes” pumped by hand to grenades to extinguishers improved to the models used today.

Ah, ha, a fire grenade!

Use of that search term on the Internet yielded dozens of results, including the Glass Extinguisher Emporium. That site is the only one found that had a reference to and picture of an Out-o-Matic fire grenade exactly like ours.

The site tells the general history of fire grenades, which had a life span from 1860 to 1960 or thereabouts. Grenades of the first generation frequently were made in the form of ornate, colorful bottles prized by collectors today (see the many illustrations on the Emporium site). The second generation by post-1900 makers took on a more industrial design, similar to the professional-looking model in Cleveland County’s collection.

Saline solution and other fire-killing liquids were used in the grenades. At one point, many used carbon tetrachloride, considered hazardous today. The label on the local device, however, says “Contains no carbon tetrachloride.”

The search led to Denver, where the device was made, and contact with the Denver Firefighters Museum where Angela Rayne is enthusiastic executive director.

As expected, she reported that the Out-o-Matic Company and its street address exist no longer. She shared information about the large number of thriving firefighter museums across the country and how they work together in the Fire Museum Network. This organization has nearly 300 fire museum members across the country. The site indicates they range from “a spare room in a firehouse basement” to magnificent institutions such as the New York City Fire Department Museum.

Ms. Rayne sent best wishes to local volunteers. She also wanted them to know the fire museum network has undertaken a collective project to further delineate the standard museum classification system (used locally) in the area of firefighting. When completed, this will provide museums an in-common nomenclature for more precisely naming items within the standard system’s broader categories.

Note: If you recall fire grenades or ever used one, we’d like to hear about it. Tell us by clicking on Comments below.

Contributor: Pat Poston


Anonymous said...

I have a box with five out a matic grenades and all are full. Are these rare or collectible {or dangerous}.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, good to hear from you. We know grenades such as these are surely interesting, but we have no information beyond what we posted. Perhaps one of the specialized fire museums can provide more help. Good luck!