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The Wacky World of 19th-Century Fire Escape Designs

History By
New York City Historic District (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
New York City Historic District (Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

 

Fire escapes seem like a pretty basic unit of architecture, but believe it or not, they were a source of design innovation back in the 1800s.

As oil lamps, gas lamps, kitchen ranges, and small bathroom boilers (i.e. “geysers”) gained wider appeal in American homes—and in turn, increased the risk of household fires—ways of escaping those fires became a popular design quirk on buildings. Designers and inventors’ ideas ranged from the artful and practical to the completely insane.

National Archives’ archivist Julie Halls told Atlas Obscura this of primitive fire escapes:

“There are a lot of designs for fire escapes, but none of them really inspire confidence….There’s a flimsy looking contraption designed to catch you if you jump out of a window, and various baskets attached to ropes and pulleys that are meant to lower to the ground. Although none of them look very practical, they do reflect the fear of fire at that time.”

 

Pasquale Nigro’s 1909 patent for a winged fire escape invention (GOOGLE PATENT US 912152 A)
Pasquale Nigro’s 1909 patent for a winged fire escape invention (GOOGLE PATENT US 912152 A)

 

One of the weirder fire escape inventions goes to Pasquale Nigro, who secured a patent in 1909 for a winged contraption that would allow families to literally fly out of burning buildings. Due to lack of fire regulation and just plain fear—especially in New York, where there were no qualifications for safe or approved fire escapes—inventors like Nigro were emboldened to produce escape plans, no matter how impractical they were.

Another doozy is B.B. Oppenheimer’s 1879 patent for a “fire escape helmet,” which was a wax cloth chute and matching clown shoes to be worn on your head and feet, respectively. The idea was to jump from a burning building and land “without injury and without the least damage on the ground.” (We’re hoping there weren’t any trial runs—or jumps, that is.)

B.B. Oppenheimer's design (GOOGLE PATENT US 221855 A)
B.B. Oppenheimer’s design (GOOGLE PATENT US 221855 A)

 

Even state-approved methods weren’t always sound. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania both had fire escape laws on the books for hotels, requiring them to outfit their rooms with ropes, just in case guests needed to escape a fire by climbing out of the window. The fairly obvious problem? Ropes are flammable, and well, not everybody’s strong enough to climb out of a window using one to support their weight.

New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 ultimately brought about stricter regulations for fire escapes and exits, ending the flurry of speculation from inventors. As crazy as many of their ideas were, they reflect a real fear of fire—one that still exists today—and a willingness (however misguided) to address it.