Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 38
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
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Celebrating the Work of Princeton’s First Responders, Historical Society Spins an Epic Yarn With “Emergency!”

Dilshanie Perera

What did people do before they could call 911 if something went wrong? How were fires fought at the turn of last century? How do you make bandages?

All of these questions and more are answered in the Historical Society of Princeton’s latest exhibition, “Emergency! Princeton’s First Responders,” now on view at Bainbridge House until January 17.

The exhibition is a celebration of Princeton’s first responders, including the Police Departments, Fire Department, First Aid and Rescue Squad, and local Red Cross, over time. “There are people toiling everyday for us,” Curator of Exhibitions Eileen Morales said, noting that another goal of the show is to have visitors consider what an emergency is, and what happens after a call goes out. “There are so many of these layers that the public doesn’t see.”

As for the answers to the questions above: prior to the establishment of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad in 1938, local funeral homes used to loan their vehicles to assist in transporting patients to the hospital. Older hearses would occasionally be retrofitted with a bed, sink, and chairs in the back to function as ambulances or “invalid cars,” as can be seen in one 1923 photograph on display in the show.

Fire engines circa 1890 looked rather different than they do now. Mercer Engine Company No. 3’s vehicle is a horse-drawn, otherworldly-looking carriage with four giant hoop wheels supporting a spool with a length of hose wrapped around it.

Ms. Morales pointed out that firefighters, both then and now, get up close to conflagrations, risking their lives to keep the populace safe. Images of fires being fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Princeton recall a time when many buildings were tinderboxes.

Within the story of first responders are insights into life at the beginning of the 1900s. As the century progressed, an increasing inclusivity could be seen in terms of race and gender, though tensions and struggles were present in Princeton as in many other places. Officer Philip Diggs was the first African American policeman to work on the Borough force, joining in 1920.

The Borough Police Department itself was founded in 1886, the Township’s in 1927. Ms. Morales pointed out that early calls into the departments ranged from emergencies to reports of cows and chickens being on the loose.

Both the Fire and Police Departments saw an increased expansion between the 1950s and 1970s. Characterizing the two as “having changed dramatically” over the past decades, Ms. Morales said that in the ’90s, “community policing” was a key area for the force, and in the post-9/11 world, an emphasis has been placed on “emergency operation and coordination, as well as domestic terrorism response and prevention.”

While contemporary policing “requires a really high level of learning new technologies,” the objects in the exhibition hearken back to a different era, and provide insight into how emergency operations were managed then.

A gigantic two-way radio communications box that looks much heavier than any present-day cellphone or laptop was a standard in the 1940s, and a fire alarm telegraph would receive calls from phones located around town when something was seen to be ablaze in the early 20th century. The call boxes each had their own code numbers depending on the intersection they were located on, so the firemen knew instantly knew where to go as a call came in.

As for making bandages, you can take a clean, white bed sheet, tear it up into long strips, and roll them up for future use. Et voila!

For more information, or for directions, visit or call (609) 921-6748.

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