During 1974 and 1975, the height of the planning stages for Philadelphia's celebration of the Nation's Bicentennial, the Philadelphia Fire Department enlisted the aid of interested individuals in the private sector to form an alliance with the City of Philadelphia to create a new fire museum. This museum was designed to be a showcase for Bicentennial visitors to partake of the rich firefighting history that occurred in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the first organized volunteer fire company in Colonial America, established in 1736 by Benjamin Franklin.
Building upon an existing Philadelphia Fire Department museum that was overcrowded and whose exhibits were difficult to interpret, the Administration of Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Joseph R. Rizzo, members of the Fire Department staff and a group of interested individuals began to explore ways of improving the fire museum. Philadelphia's National Bicentennial celebration provided the means of accomplishing the transition to the new museum. Fireman's Hall Museum was chosen as one of the three City museums to merit special developmental consideration during this period. Major Bicentennial funding provided by Philadelphia's property casualty insurance companies, as well as other corporations and groups, were designated specifically for the fire museum. The City itself supplied additional funding. Consequently, the museum was able to undertake a major building campaign.
A new organization, the Philadelphia Fire Department Historical Corporation (PFDHC), chartered in 1974 as a charitable and educational non-profit 501c3 corporation, was created to raise supplemental funding for the building expansion and to support and maintain the collection, exhibits, library, archives and educational purposes of the new museum. Its volunteer Board of Directors, drawn from the business and educational community, provided advice for the Museum's management during its expansion and to assume fiduciary responsibility for non-city funds. In addition to business and educational leaders, the Board consisted of members of the museum community, well-known fire historians and other dedicated individuals.
Early efforts of the PFDHC included creating and purchasing brochures and stationary. The Corporation arranged for horses to pull the antique apparatus, scouted for Philadelphia firefighting artifacts and helped increase the Museum's visibility. In addition, the Corporation formed a membership program that included periodic lectures, newsletters, annual parties and funding efforts to support fire safety and fire prevention outreach programs.
Over the years, the PFDHC has continued to support the Museum by cataloguing and computerizing the collections, updating museum exhibits, documenting the history of the Philadelphia firefighting through oral history programs and through the publishing of a comprehensive history of the Philadelphia Fire Department, Hike Out!. Additions to the Museum, in the form of new acquisitions, exhibits, computers, security and phone systems, as well as operating funds, are made through the Corporation. Perhaps most importantly, the Corporation continues to develop the organization and financial resources required to enable Fireman's Hall Museum to be self-fulfilling in its mission to be a quality museum and a resource for fire safety and prevention.
Written by Carol Wojtowicz Smith and reprinted (with updates) from Invisible Philadelphia Community through Voluntary Organization, compiled and edited by Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gillam, Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia, 1995.