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

Most watched eBay auctions    

Leather Fire Helmet ( Cairns N5a Model) New ConditionLeather Fire HelmetAntique Tall Leather Fire Helmet Shield - Cairns & Bros. (fdny) Cairn& Brother Leather Fire Helmet Boston FdCairns New Yorker N5a Leather Fire Helmet W/ Retro Shield Holder & BourkesBoston,mass Fire Dept. Helmet Front Aide To District Chief 8Cairns & Bros. New York City Fire Department Fdny High Eagle Fire Helmet RareCairns 1010 Fire Fighter Helmet Red With ShieldVery Old Firemans Helmet - Possibly Japanese - Rare - L@@kLion/paul Conway American Heritage Fire HelmetCairns 5a Leather Fire Helmet - FdnyMorning Pride Ben 2 Fire Helmet (black)Vintage 1930's Fireman Fire Fighter Prob Probation Fireman Leather Helmet PatchVintage Antique Cairnes Aluminum High Eagle Fire HelmetVintage Obsolete Speedway Indiana Fire Dept Department Badge + Leather Hat BadgeUnique Cairns And Bros 1800's Firemans Helmet (748 ?)Vintage Cairns & Brother Leather Fire HelmetMsa 1044dsb Cairns 1044 Traditional Composite Fire Helmet With Defender Black...Vintage Cairns Composite Chicago Fire Helmet Fireman !Lincoln K2799 Dark Fire Auto Darkening Welding Helmet (new)German Ww2 Police/fire Helmet With Liner & Chinstrap - No Reserve-Boston Fire Department Disbanded Engine 1 Fireman Firefighter Helmet FrontBullard Us6bk Fire Helmet, Black, R721Morning Pride Fire HelmetBoston Fire Department Engine 14 Fireman Firefighter Helmet FrontLafd Los Angeles Fire Department Disbanded Engine 32 Firefighter Helmet FrontCairns And Brothers Vintage Aluminum Fire Helmet Inside Is LeatherWest German Fire / Police Helmet - #m08511Vintage Wen-mac Texaco Fire Chief Helmet W/ Earpiece Speaker & Orig BoxVintage Cairns Bros. Fire Fireman's Helmet HatLafd Los Angeles Fire Department Truck 12 Firefighter Helmet FrontCairns 360s Fire Ems Yellow HelmetFire, Police Helmet With ShieldWildland Fire Helmet And Paulson Goggles With Nomex Vintage Obsolete Boston Fire Department Hat BadgeRare Vintage Antique Norwegian Fire Department Helmet With Badge -tommy GodkjentVintage Pair Used Fireman's Fire Fighter Black Helmets Cfd M-s-a TopgardObsolete Fire Department Hat Badge Fire Bureau Baltimore County City Md.S M L Xl Xxl Pgr St01 Fire Engine Gloss Red Motorcycle Full Face Helmet DotPensacola Fire Helmet Shield Front Firefighter Cairns And Bro1940's 1950's Eureka California Bullard Company Fire Department Fire Helmet Red Nwt Nike Women's Fire Pink W/silver Swoosh Featherlight Dri-fit Cap HatVintage Fire Helmet Chin Strap-nylon W/clipsVintage Postcard China Chinese Fire Brigade Men Helmets Uniform Shanghai New ArtVintage Sterling Silver Necklace W/ Cross Pendant 1 Charm Firemans HatVintage 1920-1940s Rosyln Highlands Fire Department Hat Hughes & Thomas TailorsBlack Fire Fighter Ed Department Fighters Emblem Embroidered Hat Cap Hats -wSwiss M40 Fire Brigade HelmetQuickutz Thin Metal Die 2" Golf Megaphone Firefighter Hat Tee Fire Lot Of 4Bagley Minnestoa Fire Police Dps Patch Fire HatVintage Texaco Fire Chief Gasoline W/ Hat 6" Porcelain Metal Gas Oil Button SignPattonville Missouri Fire Police Dps Patch Ems Caduceus (hat Size) Gold MylarFire Flame Helmet Hat Cap Dog Cat Costume Accessory Pet Supplies Safety AltitudeSkylanders Trap Team * Fire Red Captains Hat * 5 Day Auction * Used *sale* Canada - Windsor Ontario Fire Department Hat PatchAntique Obsolete Rfd 2 Fire Dept Hat Pin / Badge ? Laurel Wreath Boston Bruins On Fire Snapback Hat, New With Tags Fire Flame Biker Embroidered Iron On Patches Hat Bag Clothes Jean Craft Diy