Fire! Fire! by Thomas Nast, in Charles Dickens's Pictures from Italy and American Notes (1877), Chapter VI, "New York," p. 321. Wood-engraving, 4 ⅛ by 5 ⅜ inches (10.7 cm high by 13.6 cm wide), vignetted. Descriptive headline: "Another Public Institution" (321).

Passage Illustrated: Dickens's Description of How a Fire Energizes New Yorkers

What is this intolerable tolling of great bells, and crashing of wheels, and shouting in the distance? A fire. And what that deep red light in the opposite direction? Another fire. And what these charred and blackened walls we stand before? A dwelling where a fire has been. It was more than hinted, in an official report, not long ago, that some of these conflagrations were not wholly accidental, and that speculation and enterprise found a field of exertion, even in flames: but be this as it may, there was a fire last night, there are two to-night, and you may lay an even wager there will be at least one, to-morrow. So, carrying that with us for our comfort, let us say, Good night, and climb up-stairs to bed. [Chapter VI: "New York," page 320]

Commentary: "Pigs!" and "Fire!"

An enormous pig moves with surprsingly speed to the front of the pack of citizens who seem eager to witness the latest conflagration; the crowd races to keep up with the fire crew and their mobile pumping-machine (rear) in order to witness the exciting scene. Apparently such scavengers as this pig were an all-too-common feature of the American urban landscape at the time:

The pigs! On a stroll down Broadway, Dickens came upon a “solitary swine lounging homeward by himself.” The hog led a “roving gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life,” a truly republican pig “in every respect going wherever he pleases.” Pigs were no joking matter, though. Dickens’s porker and about 3,000 fellow “ugly brutes” were the city’s scavengers, and, like the seagulls that flock to today’s garbage dumps, they had license to consume the tons of garbage dumped by residents and businesses on the city’s docks and thoroughfares. In earlier years, when the municipal authorities attempted to control unpenned pigs, riots had erupted — for any curtailing of the freedom of these animals increased the cost of their upkeep, thus placing a significant burden on the poor who owned them. It would not be until the cholera epidemic of 1849 that the city’s Sanitary Committee was able to “board out” thousands of swine to the sparsely developed northern wards. [Muzzio]

The fire chief directs his crew with a speaking-horn as ordinary citizens (an entirely male group) responds to the cal of "Fire! Fire!" Nast captures the vigorous action of the scene and admirably suggests the mania for an incendiary spectacle.

The Relevant Illustration from the British Household Edition: A Saloon at The Five Points

Above: A. B. Frost's lively rendition of the bar musical that Dickens (in the rear of the plate) enjoyed in the Five-Points of New York: "When suddenly the lively hero Dashes in to the Rescue" (1880).

Related Material

Relevant Marcus Stone illustrations for American Notes

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Dickens, Charles. Chapter VI: "New York." Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz and American Notes. Illustrated by Thomas Nast and Arthur B. Frost. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877 (copyrighted in 1876). 316-22.

_______. Chapter VI: "New York." American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy. Illustrated by J. Gordon Thomson and A. B. Frost. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. 263-80.

Muzzio, Douglas. "When Boz Came to Town —Remembering Charles Dickens's first visit to New York." "Arts and Culture New York." CJ: City Journal. August 2018.

Created 20 May 2019

Last modified 11 June 2020