Fire grenades were designed to be thrown into the center of the fire and shatter on impact, putting out the fire. One of the most famous manufacturers of fire grenades, and most used, was the Harden Hand Fire Extinguisher Company. Harden grenades were six to eight inches high, with a narrow neck and a round body, and featured an embossed star with vertical ribs or a diamond quilted pattern. Many grenades were sealed with a cork and cement.
The use of candles, kerosene and oil lamps, fireplaces and wood stoves placed many households at risk. The first firemen employed a bucket brigade system from wells and ditches to battle fires.
They also used hose carts, which were pulled by as many as 20 men. The creation of the Auburn Fire Department in1852 led to improvements, including a new horse-drawn wagon, fourteen volunteer firemen and a town watchman.
Yet not all fires had to be fought with the help of firemen. Fire grenades were kept on wall-mounted brackets around the house or kept close to fireplaces in case they needed to be used to extinguish the flames. In 1909 the Placer Herald reported that “fire grenades were to be placed in Central station on the Shepard lot for use in case of fire in the neighborhood.”
Fire grenades were filled with saltwater solution or carbon tetrachloride. This colorless liquid robbed the fire of oxygen through a chemical reaction. However, it was also highly carcinogenic and when used, the clouds of toxic gas could cause damage to lungs, kidneys and liver.
Fire grenade manufacturers often made inflated claims about the effectiveness of the grenades in battling fires. Some even organized presentations or published testimonials from satisfied customers.
Once the long-term health effects of fire grenades were exposed the production began to dwindle. Eventually fire grenades were deemed no longer acceptable by the National Fire Protection Association and were gradually replaced by the metal fire extinguisher we know today.
The grenade was donated by the Placer County Historical Society and is currently on display at the Gold Rush Museum.