Victorian Hand Grenade Fire Extinguishers

February 03, 2015 Posted by: Kate Clevenger

Archaeology is always surprising.  Recently, the GGNRA Archeology Lab was processing a box full of artifacts from a site near wealthy Land’s End developer and one-time mayor of San Francisco Adolph Sutro’s old residence at Sutro Heights. 

When looking at the artifact deposit for statuary fragments that would help us find out more about the statues at Land’s End, some interesting housewares and personal items surfaced from the deposit.

In this photo you can see an example of the breadth of artifacts that were recovered from the site:  a statue fragment of a foot and a woman’s head, some slate and marble, some ceramic sherds and glassware, etc.

In particular, this unusual scalloped blue glass, excavated in 1987, caught the lab’s attention. The catalog record for the shards indicated they were believed to have made up a decorated bowl.

Lab technicians decided to try to reassemble the vessel to see if it could tell the park something new about its form or function:  is it a drinking glass? A candy dish?  A perfume jar?  (DEFINITION:  reassembling an archaeological vessel from shard fragments is called mending).

The artifact was assembled using blue painter’s tape, sliding pieces into place until they felt right…somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle (NOTE #1:  Glass is easy to mend because, if a break is clean, you can literally feel the pieces fit together correctly).  (NOTE #2:  The blue painter’s tape is temporary:  never use “over-the-counter” tape or glue to mend an artifact, because they can leave harmful residues on the artifact and break down over time.  To properly mend this artifact, a stable archival, resin-based adhesive called B-72 Acryloid will be used.)

Slowly, the vessel began to take form and recreated what looked like about ½ of a blue bottle base, approximately 4 inches in diameter.

Based on the distinctive round shape, color, ribbing, and banding, the GGNRA Park Archaeologist recognized that this vessel was not a decorated glass bowl – it was a Victorian hand grenade fire extinguisher!  A quick internet search supplied a confident ID that the pieces once began as a Harden "Star" Hand Grenade Fire Extinguisher.  Here is an image of the same kind of bottle in green (notice the similarity in form).

To use a hand grenade fire extinguisher, a person would throw the bottle into a fire which would then shatter the glass. The bottle contained a chemical, carbon tetrachloride, which sucked up/bonded with all the oxygen in the location and smothered the fire. 

 

While most of the mended bottle is incomplete, a number "83" is visible on the base, which may be the manufacture date (this would put this product at the height of its popularity, and perfect timing for the years that Adolph Sutro lived at his Sutro Heights Residence). 

 

These images may seem a little melodramatic now, but in Victorian San Francisco fashionable homes were heavily decorated and filled with rugs, carpets, wall hangings.  Women were encumbered by bustles, petticoats and corsets.  Modern fire retardant building materials had not been invented yet.  Freedom of movement was restricted, and domestic and industrial fires were extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, they were not uncommon, and women and children were frequently the victims (such as the tragic incident at General Pershing’s home in the Presidio of San Francisco).   

 

Here are two images of Adolph Sutro’s drawing room, which is filled with statues, furniture, knick-knacks, tapestries, books, and drapery.  Imagine the damage a fire could do and Sutro jumping up from a lush, wing-backed chair to frantically toss a hand grenade fire extinguisher into his fireplace.

 

The invention of brightly colored bottles that hung in attractive baskets by the hearth and could be quickly and easily smashed over a fire was a rather brilliant idea.  The immense popularity of these items indicates that Victorian men, women, and children also thought so.

 

Here is a grateful 1885 consumer testimonial on Harden grenades: 

"White Lion Inn, High Wycombe, June 8, 1885, - Gentlemen, - In putting out the alarming fire in my back premises, on Saturday last, the effect of the two Harden 'Star' Hand Grenades which were broken on the flames was simply wonderful. In two minutes or so the whole fire was out, and the total destruction of the whole premises prevented. - Yours truly, W. A. Weaver." (http://www.hammerdown.com/harden.html)

 

Ironically, we now know that carbon tetrachloride is highly carcinogenic and creates clouds of toxic gas when used.  Victorian consumers eventually realized the health problems associated with these “safe” extinguishers, which led to changes in the chemical composition of the extinguishers and ultimately their discontinuation.

 

It is fascinating to think of the Victorian years as the beginning of the modern era of increased sanitation practices, safety codes, and health regulations. The mild blue glass shards reveal a great insight into life at the Sutro Residence, and a great (if ironic) moment in the history of health and safety!  


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