Shortly after the formation of fire wards or brigades in larger American cities, it became clear that specialized clothing and headgear were needed to protect those who were on the front lines. Like military units before them, fire brigades adopted helmets during the mid-18th century. The first fire cap design is credited to Jacobus Turck, who created the leather stovepipe-shaped hat in New York City around 1740. The form was improved by Matthew DuBois, who included iron wire along the rim to stabilize its shape and provide further heat resistance.

Other fire hat styles were made from pressed felt, wool, or papier-mâché, though these were typically better for identification than protection. Helmets made of aluminum also appeared toward the end of the 19th century, but were much rarer because of the cost of the material.

Helmet colors indicated rank or position in a specific brigade: White was reserved for Chief Engineers, black brims on white caps were worn by Fire Wardens, red helmets were worn by firemen in hook-and-ladder companies, and black hats were donned by members of engine companies.

Henry Gratacap, a foreman in the New York City Fire Department, was among the most well-known early fire-helmet makers. Opening his business in 1836, Gratacap was the main producer of New York City fire hats for the next three decades. He added the eagle shield holder to his helmets, which extended from the cap’s peak to hold a large shield insignia over the front brim. These frontispieces generally featured their owner’s position, brigade number, and unit location. Often stitched from tooled leather pieces, helmet shields also included painted images of hoses, ladders, or engines, depending on the unit’s assignment.

An “eight-comb” fire helmet, or one made from eight stitched leather segments, was adopted by the New York City Fire Department in the late 1800s. This style also included a longer cape-like brim to direct water and debris away from the wearer and provide warmth in the winter. Other more expensive models were made from as many as 164 segments and used a variety of decorative shield holders, shaped like serpents, seahorses, and roosters. Dates were sometimes painted on the back brim of the helmet, representing the year a specific company was founded.

During the 19th century, special presentation helmets became popular for retirement or promotion ceremonies. The metal shield fronts of these special helmets were sometimes hand-painted with floral designs and gilded patterns. Gratacap created one of the most famous presentation helmets for a Sacramento fireman using a silver-and-gold frontispiece inlaid with gemstones; the headgear cost around $1,350, at a time when most fire helmets were closer to $4. Parade helmets are highly sought by collectors because of their rarity and ornate styling.

Jasper and Henry Cairns purchased Gratacap’s business in 1868 and later incorporated perforations into the design of their products to provide better ventilation. Renamed Cairns and Brother, the company also created the popular low-crown shape during the 1930s, which removed the shield holder entirely to shorten the cap’s peak by two inches. After World War II, chin straps and face visors were added to improve the fire cap’s protective capabilities. Most of these newer helmets, which incorporated synthetic materials and streamlined shapes, have little collectible value.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive

Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive

This incredibly comprehensive archive of LAFD ephemera and memorabilia is as good a history of 19th and 20th centur… [read review or visit site]

Fire Hydrant Collections

Fire Hydrant Collections

Don't let your dog near this site... hundreds of photos of fire hydrant collections from over 60 individual collect… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

H. T. Gratacap Leather Fire Helmet Union Ladder Cap New YorkCairns And Bro. Model 5a Vintage Leather Firemans Helmet Leather Excellent Cond.Cairns And Brothers N5 Leather Fire Helmet, SmallCairns N5a "new Yorker" Black Leather Firefighters Fire Helmet W/ Bourkes LargeLeather Fire Helmet - 5a - Medium***leather Fire Helmet***Vintage Cairns High Eagle Leather Fire HelmetVintage Cairns & Brother Leather Fire Helmet, Small Size, Black, Goodwill #2, NrFire HelmetCairns Leather Fire Helmet Vintage Colwyn Pa Fire DepartmentCairns N6a Sam Houston Leather Fire HelmetVintage Cairns Helmet- Fire Department Leather Helmet, Berlin, Ct.Vintage Cairns Leather New Yorker White Captains Eastchester, Ny Fire HelmetPhiladelphia Fire HelmetBullard Black Embossed Firedome Ust Plastic Fire Helmet Eagle Crest & VisorCairns 1010 Fire HelmetVintage 1880's Cairns & Bro Maker New York Tag Sign Leather Fire Helmet FiremanPhiladelphia Fire HelmetVintage Texaco Fire Chief Plastic Helmet Hat Toy Park Plastics Estate FindLeather Fire Helmet 5aCairns 1044 Traditional Fire Helmet - White"america's Bravest" "1" Fire Helmet ShieldCairns 1010 Or 1044 Fire Firefighter Helmet Black Very Worn As IsVintage Cairns & Brothers 900 Fire Helmet Vintage Yellow Cairns & Brothers 900p Fire Helmet Excellent ConditionVintage Bridgeport Fire Department Firefighter Helmet Shield Crest BadgeCairns 1010 Or 1044 Fire Firefighter Helmet Black Very Worn As Is - BMsa Bourkes & Leather Fire Helmet Liner (no Ear Flaps)Vintage Cairns Firemens HelmetLeather Fire Helmet Front Piece 10 Engine Fdny StyleSkylanders Trap Team Trap Crystal * Fire Captain's Hat * Used * 5 Day *Cairns & Brothers New York Aluminum Senator Fire Helmet Warden MfdAntique Msa Fire HelmetVintage Leather Fire Helmet Front Neversink 3 Rfd Reading PaCairns N5a Leather Fire HelmetLot Vintage Dover Fire Department Delaware Warden Hat Badge & Belt BuckleFire Department Helmet Coopersburg, Pa. TopguardCairns Fire Helmet 1010 With Visor And Eagle ? On FrontBaltimore Orioles Fire HelmetFire Helmet Shield Brass Pin HoldersFire Helmet, British ParadePolice / Security / Trooper / Ems / Fire Class A Uniform Dress Hat - Size 7 1/2Vintage Fiberglass Fire Helmet War Baby StyleMiniature Leather Fire Helmet Front Engine 8Vintage Fire Helmet Cufflinks Gamewell Call Box Tie Clip Fire Helmet FirefightFirst Gear 2000 Grand Rapids Michigan Replica Fire Department Helmet Bank MintGerman Fire Department Hat Badges And Pins (11 Pieces)Brand New Smith Forefront Mtb Helmet Medium In "matte Fire Insomniac"Cairns N6a Sam Houston Leather Fire Helmet Size M. N5aPolice Policemen Fire Dept Firemen~du Bois Uniform Hats~vintage Azo Rppc~pCrew Chief/fire Capt/shift Chief - Hat Badge Mm Made In EnglandFireice Fire Fighting Retardant Manufacturer Company Logo Ballcap HatVintage English England Brass Firemans Firefighters Helmet Fire BrigadeVintage Fireman Hat Badge Engine #3 Eastchester Ny Fire DeptOriginal German Or Austrian Fire Helmet Brass Comb, Ca. 1900-1925, ExcellentFdny Baseball Hat Ball Cap Navy Yellow Fire Department New York Badge MensPlaymobil 5981 Firehouse Fireman Helmets Gloves Aa Fire Chief Stands Bullhorn Fire Hat Souvenir - #m07023Fire Helmet Firefighter Candle Tea Light Holder Vanmark - Red Hats Of CourageThrasher Hat Cap Fire Black Magazine Flames Adjustable Embroidered Logo New