J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Fire Buckets and the Fenno Family

The Skinner auctioneers blog offers Christopher D. Fox’s detailed discussion of firefighting and leather fire buckets in Boston.

In particular, Fox profiles one maker of those buckets:
While there were certainly a number of merchants in Boston from whom fire buckets could be purchased, few seem to have advertised in the papers. In addition, it is very rare to find a mark or signature on a fire bucket that identifies its maker. As a result, the identities of nearly all of the makers of fire buckets around Boston have been lost. One exception to this are the buckets produced by John Fenno Jr.

John Fenno Jr. was born in Boston on May 4, 1732, to John Fenno (1707-1790) and Hannah Capen (1712-1792). He married Katherine Hodges (1729-1810) on April 4, 1755, and together they had six children. Fenno’s father worked in the leather business and it is likely that John learned the leatherworking trade from him. While it is not clear exactly when John Fenno Jr. began working on his own, an advertisement in the Massachusetts Centinel in April 1785 indicates that by then his business was well established. “John Fenno, jun. Hereby gives notice to those gentlemen who are so well disposed as to enter into Fire Societies, and all others, that he continues to make Leather Buckets, strong and neat, of a large size, and handsome shape. — Hoses for Engines, and Hoses for the West-India use — Boots, Gloeshoes, and Shoes of all sizes, at the sign of the Leather Bucket, next door to Dr. Samuel Curtis’s at the South End.” Fortunately for historians and collectors, Fenno’s fire buckets are identifiable as he marked his work with a rectangular stamp reading “I. FENNO” on the back of his buckets near the stitched seam.

Unfortunately, in the spring of 1787 his house burned and Fenno was forced to relocate his business as testified by a newspaper advertisement in May of that year. This advertisement is interesting in that beyond the text describing what he makes and sells, it illustrates two of his principal products; shoes and buckets. Over the next several years his business continued to flourish and he expanded his offerings to include hoses for firefighting equipment and other uses. In October 1794 Fenno placed the following advertisement in the Columbian Centinel: “John Fenno, Informs the Public, that he continues to make Leather Buckets, after the best manner, at the sign of the Bucket, Orange Street, South end, Boston. A number of Buckets may be had on the shortest notice. Said Fenno makes Hoses for Engines, and Hose for the conveyance of Oil and Molasses on board vessels.” Fenno apparently continued his bucket-making business until his death on December 5, 1812.
Fenno’s next-younger brother, Ephraim (1734-1790), also became a leather-dresser in Boston. He turned “melancholy” in the late 1780s, was admitted to the almshouse in November 1788, and died there, as tracked in his son’s letters (P.D.F. download).

John and Ephraim’s uncle Benjamin Fenno (b. 1719) might have been the man who looked after the town granary before the Revolutionary War. That granary eventually was taken down to built the Park Street Church, but it left its name on the neighboring burying-ground.

The next generation of the Fenno family left a literary trail. The bucket-maker John Fenno’s daughter born in 1765 is variously called Janet, Jennet, Jenny, and Jane. As Jenny Fenno and then as Jane Ames, she published three volumes of religious verse, as I discussed here. Here’s a look at her 1805 volume for sale.

Ephraim had a son named John Fenno (1751-1798), who assisted Abiah and then Samuel Holbrook at the South Writing School. After the war and some unsuccessful shopkeeping he became the publisher and editor of the Gazette of the United States, the Federalist Party organ in the nation’s capital (first New York and then Philadelphia). He died of yellow fever, far from Boston.

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