An elaborate ornamental frame encloses a dramatic scene of everyday life in mid eighteenth-century New York: in the above image we witness a volunteer company laboring to extinguish a fire at an unidentified location. Without access to the sorts of hydrants that are a common feature of today’s cityscape, a line of men passes buckets of water from hand to hand, a team effort that is memorialized both in the name of the company (Hand-in-Hand Fire Company) and in the emblem of a disembodied handshake that graces the top of the frame. Emptied into the engine at center, the water is manually pumped into the hose a firefighter aims at the burning building’s third-floor window.

Inscribed by Isaac Roosevelt, the certificate invites the Earl of Sterling to attend an evening meeting on March 3rd, 1762 at the house of a man identified simply as "Mr. Crawley."

Attributed to Henry Dawkins, Certificate of the Hand-in-Hand Fire Company, New York. Engraving with hand-written inscriptions in pen and ink, ca. 1753.

Not long after, in 1776, New York would experience its worst blaze ever, a tragedy that would decimate much of the city. The Great Fire of 1776 began on September 20th of that year, "five days after the British captured the city," according to the Gotham Center. It "burnt out a large part of the city overnight, though it is difficult to say just how large a part: eyewitness estimates ranged from as little as the 493 houses... to a possible high of as many as 1,500." Meanwhile, New York journalist and publisher Hugh Gaine reported one sixth of the city had been destroyed.

The fire started in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, a wooden building and "a fun house visited by the city's most disreputable residents."

As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.