By Julia Fell, ’17

Fire has always been a serious threat to human life and human structures. Fires have swept through London, San Francisco,

Chicago Fire

“Chicago in Flames,” Currier and Ives, 1871

Chicago, and countless other cities and towns, decimating buildings and claiming lives. The necessity of fire in so many aspects of every-day life increases the danger from it. Naturally, there have been many attempts at figuring out how to lessen the risks of fires starting, as well as how to control them once they have started. Benjamin Franklin famously developed fire departments and other precautions in America during the 18th Century,[1] and other advances came along, such as the fire extinguisher as we think of it today, and the fire grenade, of which there is a fine example in the collections of the New York State Historical Association.


This particular fire grenade is made of amber-colored, pressed or molded glass with a diamond pattern and the initials “HNS” in monogram style on

Fire grenade

Fire Grenade, ca. 1889, glass. H: 7.5 in x W: 4.25 in. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. Gift of C.R. Jones, Roseboom, NY. N0005. 2006 (03). Photograph by Julia Fell.

two sides. This refers to the maker, Harvey S. Nutting. Several others of this description can be found on auction sites online, the most interesting of which still has paper labels affixed which offer information on its use (“In case of fire throw or break the GRENADE So the contents will be scattered in the flame”) and patent (Minneapolis, Minnesota, March 1889).[2] The NYSHA fire grenade was used in Minnesota’s neighboring state, Iowa.


According to an article from the Chicago Tribune (September 3, 1995), fire grenades were popular from the 1870s to the 1910s. They contained a liquid that would disperse onto the fire when smashed. This liquid was often carbon tetrachloride, which was highly toxic if inhaled.[4] Other compounds were used in reaction to the dangers of the tetrachloride, such as salt water or bicarbonate of soda.[3] Some of the grenades were thrown into the flames, which was extremely dangerous since any explosion, let alone one containing carbon tetrachloride was fraught with hazards. Other grenades were held in special wire racks or brackets which would come apart after sitting in the heat for long enough, dropping the grenade.[4] These apparatus were installed in a building as a precaution, and would be set into action like modern sprinklers are today.

Although fire grenades (also called fire extinguisher bombs) stopped being commonly used after the 1910s, they did not drop out of use entirely. There is a patent for a re-designed ‘Fire extinguishing bomb for putting out fires” as recently as 1975,[5] as well as newer versions available today, which are metal canisters with a pull-pins.[6]

The technology involved in the practice of fighting fires is ever-evolving. The steps that fire extinguishers have taken along the way have been well-intentioned, even if they were unintentionally harmful. The hap-hazard glass fire grenade is a far cry from the more accurate and safe extinguishers that we use today, but it was an important step along the evolutionary path to modern fire safety equipment.


[1] Cannon, Donald J. Heritage of Flames: The Illustrated History of Early American Firefighting. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977.

[2] “ANTIQUE HNS AMBER FIRE GRENADE EXTINGUISHER FIREMAN MN (06/14/2011).” Worthpoint. June 14, 2011. Accessed November 22, 2015.

[3] Deluca, Chuck. “Extinguishers.” In Firehouse Memorabilia, a Collector’s Reference: An Illustrated Reference Aid for Collectors. York, Maine: Maritime Antique Auctions, 1989.

[4] Kovel, Ralph, and Terry Kovel. “Fire Grenades Were Used In Past To Put Out Flames.” Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. September 3, 1995. Accessed November 22, 2015.

[5] Kirk, Norman. “Patent US3980139 – Fire Extinguishing Bomb for Putting out Fires.” Google Books. September 14, 1976. Accessed November 22, 2015.

[6] “Fire Extinguisher and Suppression Bombs.” Fire Extinguisher Bombs. 2010. Accessed November 22, 2015.