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The Invention of the Fire Escape

Fire escapes and fire stairwells remain a vital component of multi-story buildings. Even with all the advances in building materials, catastrophic fires can and do happen. And of course, in the 19th and early 20th centuries wood was one of the main components of most structures. Fires could quickly decimate an edifice. Often an entire block of buildings would catch fire.

The Fire Escape

A burning brick building with great grey plumes of fire rising from the rooftop.

The name most commonly associated with the early invention of the fire escape is a woman, Anna Connelly. But the invention of the fire escape is more complex than that. Because of the resistance of business owners, the fire escape had to be invented in stages. 

Connelly invented an important device that helped people get out of burning buildings, but it was not the exterior iron balcony and stairs that we think as the classic “fire escape.” Other inventions needed to come first.

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A Push For Fire Safety

In New York City in 1860, an all-consuming fire in a ground floor bakery heightened  interest in safety ordinances that required exterior escape paths. As in many commercial buildings, apartments and/or offices were above the bakery. This was a tenement building, with many heavily-populated apartments above. When the fire broke out, many families were at home.

Standard fire department rescue ladders in that day reached only to the fourth floor of most buildings. People on the street witnessed as families clustered at windows looking for a solution. A few jumped. Many on higher floors perished in the fire. The following year, New York lawmakers passed a law about fire safety that specifically described what we think of as the fire escape: “fireproof balconies on each story on the outside of the building, connected by fireproof stairs.”

Landlords Objected

Despite the law, landlords were not ready to start adding staircases to the outside of their buildings. It was expensive and many felt it was unattractive.

Two years later, the law was relaxed. The new law simply stated that provisions needed to  be made for how people would exit in case of fire.

This new law led to a spate of patents for all sorts of simpler devices—from ladders and basket-and-pulley systems. Ladders that ran along the exterior of a building or a ladder that could be lowered by a winding system controlled from below were among the ideas put forward.  Some landlords provided rope ladders that could be anchored and tossed out upper story windows. 

Many apartment dwellers were forced to go up in their building to escape fire. But what happened after that? As buildings became taller people could no longer jump to safety, even with firemen holding life sheets (safety nets) below. 

One inventor came up with a personal parachute that a person could attach to their head. When they jumped from the building, those wearing parachute headgear might hope for the possibility of a safer landing. 

Needless to say, people continued to die in fires.

New Laws Added

Ablack-and-white photograph of Anna Connelly in profile. Little is known about her life.
Anna Connelly

The laws for public buildings were changed again in the 1870s. This time, the law specified that all public buildings must develop a system. But their continued to be resistance. Hotels did not want to mar their exterior with fire escape devices, and hotel guests were squeamish about having personal devices in the rooms. One guest felt it was just a reminder of the fact that she could die in a fire. 

Anna Connelly’s Device

When Anna Connelly patented her invention in 1887, it was actually far more important than it might seem today. Her patent was for a light but sturdy railed bridge that could be installed on upper floors or on the rooftops between buildings. 

Since the more serious fires often began in the lower floors occupied by commercial tenants, Connelly’s devised a system that permitted upward escape. When people got to the roof of the burning building, the bridge permitted them to cross to what was hoped to be a fire-free building. That way people might exit by going down the stairs within the neighboring building that was not yet burning. Today we would talk about helicopter rescues but of course, no such possibility existed in that day.

In her patent application, she wrote: “My invention relates to improvements in fire-escapes; and it consists of a bridge surrounded by a railing and having openings in the ends of the floor thereof, as herein described, the said bridge being adapted to be placed on the roofs of adjoining or adjacent buildings, thereby permitting the ready and safe passage from one roof to the other.”

Hotels Weaseled Out of Regulations

A red brick building with a traditional exterior fire escape.

The initial laws about fire escapes pertained to tenement apartment houses. Hotels persuaded inspectors not to consider them as multi-story dwellings. Hotel owners did not want to add unattractive exterior structures.

But the need was there. As fires continued to engulf major buildings, inventors were at work. Many of the applications for fire escapes were filed by women. Perhaps this was because they were more likely to be at home when a building caught fire. Between the years of 1877-1895 alone, women received 33 patents on various designs of fire escapes. 

Inventors and builders also worked on other types of fire escapes. At schools and hospitals, tubular chutes were tested in the 1930s. Other places experimented with evacuation slides like the ones used on planes today. 

Today newer buildings have interior fire stairs where people can usually make it to a safer floor during a fire.

Other Uses

Once added to buildings, the exterior fire escapes greatly improved an apartment occupant’s ability to escape a fire. But because they are not in constant use, city dwellers soon began creating alternate uses for them. 

At a time when there was no air conditioning, people often slept out on the fire escapes. The staircases also became handy for drying clothing and getting more sun for plants. Some fire escapes became so cluttered that they were harder to use for their intended purpose.

Though we don’t necessarily focus on the fire escape plans for public buildings or for those in a hotel where we might be staying, the news stories remind us often enough that knowing how to leave a burning building safely is still vitally important.

The government created a poster to remind people of the importance of keeping a fire escape clear. The poster shows laundry and mattresses and even a tree on the fire escape.
A government-produced poster carrying an important message.

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The deadliest industral disaster in New York City was yet to come. Compliance with the safety laws continued to be lax. Read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

For fire safety tips, click here for information from the National Fire Protection Association.

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2 thoughts on “The Invention of the Fire Escape”

  1. I had no idea that so many women had patents for fire escapes in the 1800s! I recently read that many – perhaps most – of the fire escapes still left in the older buildings in NYC are sadly in disrepair.
    Thanks as usual for an interesting story.

  2. Geri, I agree….who knew that this ended up involving a good number of women. Unfortunately, “Anna Connelly” is such a common name that I have been unable to uncover additional information about her though.
    And yes, I expect fire escapes are not necessarily well-tended. Thanks for posting.

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