Fire & Risk in Mexico City, 1860-1910

A review of Quotidian Catastrophes in the Modern City: Fire Hazards and Risk in Mexico’s Capital, 1860-1910, by Anna Rose Alexander.

The last third of the nineteenth century saw sweeping transformations to Mexico’s capital. As the country emerged from decades of political and economic instability, foreign investment began to pour in, spurring the development of Mexican industry and the undertaking of ambitious urban infrastructure projects. Mexican authorities sought to turn the capital into a European-style metropolis with modern factories, gas streetlights, wood-frame buildings and wooden sidewalks, and a network of urban parks. These advances improved the quality of urban life in some sectors of Mexico City, but they also had an unforeseen consequence: increasing the frequency and intensity of fires.

In “Quotidian Catastrophes in the Modern City: Fire Hazards and Risk in Mexico’s Capital, 1860-1910,” Anna Rose Alexander examines how different members of Mexico City society responded to the threat of fire between the Second Empire and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. By studying how non-governmental actors such as engineers, inventors, businessmen, and ordinary citizens sought to mitigate the danger of fire, Alexander reminds us that the Porfiriato — the period, from 1876 to 1910, when Porfirio Díaz dominated Mexican politics — was much more than a political regime. Instead, she shows that it was a time of rapid economic and social change in the country that was driven by both Mexicans and foreigners and people inside and outside of government.

The dissertation makes an important contribution to the emerging field of urban environmental history, using the phenomenon of fire to weave together the academic literatures of disaster, technology, and urban studies. Alexander employs Spanish historian Manuel González de Molina’s framework of social metabolism to understand the interconnectedness of the natural and human worlds in urban environments — that is, how urban dwellers consumed and transformed energy and natural resources to suit their needs.

Applying this conceptual framework to a remarkably diverse set of archival sources, including patent requests, municipal regulations, and medical school curricula, Alexander argues that the threat — and the reality — of fire between 1860 and 1910 spurred the expansion of the fields of science and medicine to prevent, extinguish, and treat the effects of fire. It also led to the creation of new for-profit industries, such as the fire insurance business. Finally, it pushed citizens to demand more and better services from the local government to deal with the problem, making fire prevention a collective, civic responsibility, rather than a purely individual one.

The dissertation is organized into four chapters, with an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter argues that fire first became a political concern in the 1860s, when an increasing fear of fire among Mexico City residents led to a push for the government to make combating fires a priority. Previously, fire fighting, like many other social services in the city, had been a neighborhood, not a municipal responsibility. After 1860, however, the increasing frequency of fires, from sources such as gas lights and then electric light bulbs and sockets, sparks from street cars, and industrial chemicals, led the government to implement new fire prevention and control policies. These early regulations placed the onus on individual citizens, not the government. The government banned certain flammable substances from homes and businesses and gave specific duties to citizens, based on their occupation, for fighting fires. Residents resisted these impositions and pushed the Ayuntamiento — the municipal government — to establish a fire brigade, as many European and North American cities did in the first half of the nineteenth century. An 1870 fire that ravaged the Volador marketplace, the city’s principal food market, bolstered citizens’ arguments for government intervention by showing the existing policies to be woefully inadequate. After taking office in 1876, President Porfirio Díaz began to provide the city with resources for purchasing fire-fighting equipment and paying professional firemen. Yet the provision of fire services was highly unequal, as the city’s fire stations were concentrated around the Alameda park in the relatively wealthy center of the city, leaving the poorer periphery under-protected. Furthermore, a professional fire brigade was not established in Mexico City until 1888, after decades of halting efforts. Residents were constantly comparing Mexico’s poorly equipped and under-trained firemen to U.S. fire brigades, who became known as the best in the world after a demonstration at the 1900 Paris Olympics.

Chapter 2 examines the role of engineers and scientists in developing new technologies for preventing and fighting fires. During the period Alexander examines, the engineering profession gained increased prominence. In 1868, President Benito Juárez turned the colonial-era College of Mining into the Expert School of Engineering. The school emphasized careers geared at solving the quotidian challenges of economic production in Mexico through the application of science, rather than more lucrative positions in private companies. Fire was an important part of an engineer’s training, and engineers worked to develop and map a citywide hydrant system and improve the capital’s notoriously low water pressure, which impeded firefighters’ ability to extinguish fires. Engineers also worked as municipal fire inspectors, determining the cause of blazes and enforcing regulations designed to prevent them.

The third chapter explores what we might call the private sector response to fires — that is, how lay inventors and insurance agents built businesses that responded to the pervasive fear of fire in late nineteenth-century Mexico City. The re-writing of Mexican patent law in 1890 led to a surge of patent applications for new inventions; many of these, including better matches, fire extinguishers, and automatic sprinkler systems, dealt specifically with fire. These inventors employed the language of Comtean positivism in advocating for their inventions — linking technological innovation to public health and the social and material progress of the nation. The 1874 Municipal Exposition in Mexico City, modeled on London’s 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition, invited inventors from across the country to display their inventions as part of a larger effort to establish Mexico among the ranks of the world’s most technologically progressive nations. The last decades of the nineteenth century also saw the emergence of a substantial fire insurance industry in Mexico. Yet both of these sectors were dominated by foreigners: of the 15 fire insurance companies operating in Mexico in 1897, 14 were foreign-owned. Porfirian authorities attempted to counter this trend by writing laws designed to bolster the Mexican insurance industry. An overwhelming share of patents was also going to foreigners: of the 1,044 patent requests the government processed between 1890 and 1896, only 307 came from Mexicans (433 came from U.S. citizens). This chapter includes fascinating renderings of some of the inventions submitted for patents, taken from the Patentes and Marcas branch of Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación.

The fourth and final chapter examines the role of public health workers in preventing fires and of physicians in treating fire-related injuries. Just as the increasing threat of fires inspired changes in public policy and advances in technology, it also led the medical community to develop new methods of dealing with this natural hazard. Díaz greatly expanded the powers of Mexico City’s Superior Health Council, giving its officials wide latitude to regulate practices deemed to endanger public health and safety, and fire prevention now came under its auspices. New regulations in the 1880s and 1890s sought to control how businesses and individuals handled flammable materials and turn citizens into whistleblowers who reported dangerous conditions to authorities. Physicians, for their part, experimented with new medical procedures, such as skin grafts, to improve the survival rate of fire victims.

Alexander concludes with an analysis of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s 1905 maps of Mexico City, which show the extent to which Mexico City’s officials and residents had realized their goal of improving the capital’s fire safety infrastructure by the beginning of the twentieth century. Alexander argues that these maps prove that residents had taken the previous decades of fire regulations to heart: wooden structures had been replaced by ones made of tepite — a stone and pumice composite — wood sidewalks had been traded for asphalt ones, and business that dealt with highly combustible materials were largely removed from the city center. Still, the hydrant system did not cover all parts of the city equally, and the Volador marketplace continued to be dangerously unprepared.

This work will provide an important contribution to the study of Mexico City under the Second Empire, Restored Republic, and Porfiriato by demonstrating how different actors responded to the threat of natural disaster. It shifts the focus of the period away from Porfirio Díaz and his inner circle of advisers by examining the contributions of less prominent inventors, doctors, and businessmen. In doing so, it offers a history of the period that smartly shows government officials to be one set of actors among many who contributed to social and economic change. Finally, Alexander reveals one of the fundamental, though under-appreciated tensions of the period: the challenge of developing the Mexican economy while ensuring that the social and economic profits accrued not only to foreign investors but also to Mexican citizens. This preoccupation is not unique to twentieth and twenty-first century historians; it figured prominently in the public policies of the era.

Andrew Konove
PhD Candidate, Department of History
Yale University
andrew.konove@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación
Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal
Archivo Histórico de la Facultad de Medicina
Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Salud

Dissertation Information

University of Arizona. 2012. 256 pp. Primary Advisor: William H. Beezley.

 

Image: José Guadalupe Posada, “Quemazón en el Baratillo de Tepito, (Mexico: Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, 1913). The Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii Library.

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