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    

Philadelphia Fire Helmet/ Leather Cairns Salesman SampleCairns Antique Leather Fire Man Department Helmet W/ Eagle Top New York*unissued & Minty Vintage Cairns Metal Fire Helmet - Wfd On Leather Shield*2001 Cairns N5a New Yorker Leather Fire HelmetCairns N5a Fire Helmet / New York Leather / Size M1961 Cairns And Bro Leather Fire Helmet New YorkerCairns Fire Helmet Vintage Fire Helmet Helmet New Jersey Fire Fighting Antique Leather Fire Helmet Carins & Brothers Deputy Chief F.d.j.c.Vintage Cairns & Brother Inc. Leather -asst. Chiefs Firemans Helmet Size 7 1/8Gallet F1 Fire Helmet Firefighting Firefighter Fireman Feuerwehrhelm Bombero MsaFdny Leather Helmet Front-cairns, New York Fire, Fireman, Shield, Original,rare Cairns New Yorker N5a Firefighter Helmet B-lth Captain Leather Brass Fire RescueOriginal Vintage Ford Oil Can Fire Wall Old Genuine Fomoco Rare Accessories Philadelphia Fire Department / Fire Helmet FrontGallet F1 Fire Helmet Firefighting Firefighter Fireman Feuerwehrhelm Bombero MsaPhiladelphia Fire Department/ Fire Helmet Front Antique Leather Fire HelmetPhiladelphia Fire Department/fire Helmet FrontVintage Cairns & Brothers Leather & Metal Firefighting Fire HelmetCairns & Bro Leather Helmet Shield Chaplain Fire Department Mount Vernon Ny~cairns & Brother Classic 1000 Firefighter Helmet 1989 Chicago Fire Dept ModelVintage Collector Antique Fire Department Helmet W/ Eagle TopFdny Leather Helmet Front-cairns, New York Fire, Fireman, Shield, Original,rare Phenix Tl2 Leather Fire HelmetGallet F1 Fire Helmet Firefighting Firefighter Fireman Feuerwehrhelm Bombero MsaFrom A Recent Estate Cairns Leather Fire HelmetCairns And Brother Leather Fire Helmet Front Shield, Unknown CompanyVintage German Fireman's Helmet Firefighting W/face Shield Marked #1Cairns 1044 Fire Helmet- YellowCairns N5a New Yorker Leather Fire Helmet Size Medium 2008Philadelphia Fire Department/fire Helmet FrontGallet F1 Fire Helmet Firefighting Firefighter Fireman Feuerwehrhelm Bombero MsaBoston Fire Department Shop Made Helmet DeviceJersey City Fire Department/fire Helmet FrontEmergency! Los Angeles County Fd "51" Fire Helmet Autographed By Tighe, MantoothPhiladelphia Fire Department/fire Helmet FrontPhiladelphia Fire Department/fire Helmet FrontCairns And Brother Leather Fire Helmet Front, Sffd Truck #1Vintage Oconto Wisconsin Fireman's Hat~fire Department Dress Uniform Cap BadgeFire / Police Usmc Uniform Dress HatVintage Fire Brigade Ppg Fd Firemans Helmet,fire Fighter,leather,hat,badgeMorning Pride Lite Force Arff Fire HelmetLeather Fire HelmetCalifornia Fire Department Engineer Hat BadgeFirst Gear Texaco Fire Chief 1956 Ford Sedan & Helmet # 18-2110 1:34 Sj 93f*bullhide If You Want Fire Natural Straw Cowgirl Hat LargeBrand New Harley Davidson Black Orange Fire Flames Adjustable Strap Hats CapsSkylanders Trap Team Fire Captains Hat Trap! Trap Deals! Read Description!Msa Black Fire And Flame Hard Hat Ratchet Suspension W SlotsBullard Usrx Fire HelmetWholesale Lot 4 X Black Fire Fighter Department Baseball Cap Hat Ht-182-4 -thFdny Leather Helmet Front-cairns, New York Fire, Fireman, Shield, Original,rare 10pcs/lot Minifigures Firemen Of Golden Anti-fire Hat Blocks Toy Kids GiftRuss Troll Doll Fireman Fire Fighter 4.25" #18321 No HatBexar County Texas Fire Rescue District 2 Hat Vest Patch Unused Blck Fire Solar Auto Darkening Welding Helmet Arc Tig Mig Certified Welder MaskVintage Lot Of 2 Fire Department Snap Back Cap Hats Sun Fire Coal Company - Hard Hat- Coal Mining Sticker-decal "very Rare" Black Fire Fighter Ed Department Fighters Emblem Embroidered Hat Cap -sFire Helmet Shield Brass Pin Holders