Prior to the Civil War, the volunteer fire company was a private service in most American cities. The early "fire society" or "fire brigade" was an association of local citizens banded together for the purpose of protecting community lives and property. In 1831 the Illinois Legislature required any incorporated city or town to have a volunteer department. Chicago's first volunteer company was organized in 1835.
Firefighting soon became an established municipal service manned by a paid ful-time work crew. But this new organization also depended upon the generosity of local politicians for jobs, salaries, and working conditions. A civil service system did not exist. Firefighters were often dismissed when a new political boss gained control of the city. Firefighting jobs were treated as political gifts and men were not always hired for their skills, but for their political contributions at election time.
Like other labor groups, Firefighters contested with management over wages, hours and conditions. But because of their unique status and the community's dependence upon them, their opportunities to press for change were often severely constricted.