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    

New Milford New Jersey Leather Fire Helmet Nmnj Fire ChiefVintage Cairns Leather Fire Helmet Model 5a With Bourke ShieldsVintage Cairns & Brother Leather Fire Helmet Model 5a (1979-80)Vintage Cairns & Brother W.h.f.d. Firemans Helmet Deputy Fire Marshal Vintage Cairns Black Leather Fire Fighting Helmet ObsoleteFdny Antique Leather Fire Helmet Shield Front PassportFireman's Fund Insurance Co. Red Leather Fire Helmet Phenix TechnologyCairns & Brother N.j. Aluminum Vintage Fire Fighter Fireman HelmetLeather Fire Helmet Shield Front PassportNew Milford New Jersey Leather Fire Helmet Nmnj Fire Lieutenant Co. 2Carins Leather N5a New Yorker Leather Fire Helmet Leather Fire HelmetCairns N5a Leather Fire Helmet - MediumCairns N5a Leather Fire Helmet - MediumCairns Sfd 50 Rescue Fire Fighter Vintage Black HelmetCairns Fdny Style Engine 36 Fire Helmet Front Shield LeatherFire Helmet Front/shield FdnyMsa Red Fire Helmet 1960's Adjustable Vintage Leather Badge FirefighterAntique Fire HelmetAntique Old R.h.f.c. Riverdale Heights Fire Company,maryland Cairns Fire HelmetVintage Fire Chief Helmet Hon Fire Chief C. Piotrowski Clifton, New JerseyLafd And La County Fire Helmet Front Shields Plastic Not Leather Station 12Ww2 Japanese Fire Fighting Helmet. GoodHigh Eagle Leather Fire HelmetVintage Cairns & Bro Leather Fire Helmet Badge Asst Chief Hhfd 1960s?Shippensburg Vigilant 52 Fire HelmetFire Department - Fire Fighter's Helmet Shield Engine 4 Pfd , VintageDollhouse Miniature Artisan Therese Bahl Hand Painted Leather Fire Bucket HatOak Brook Fd Firefighter Helmet Leather Shield Fireman Fire Cairns New JerseyBoston Fire Engine 41 Leather Helmet Shield Front Cairns And Brothers Senator Antique Fire Helmet Leather Front ShieldCairns 5a Fire Helmet Cairns 1044 Fire Helmet C Trd Black EagleHoneywell Ev1 Fire Helmet BlackLa County 51 "emergency" Fire HelmetMsa Safety 1044 Cairns Defender Fire Helmet, Black, 6-3/8 - 8-3/8Brand New Bourke Eye Shield Fire HelmetVintage Cairns Peotone Illinois Fire HelmetOriginal Ww2 G.i. Fiberglass Liner Red Helmet Used By Firefighting CrewBullard Proximity Fire Helmet With Shoulder Shroud Vintage Peru-lima Cairns&brothers Firefighting Fire Helmet Magdalena 36 IcemanCairns And Brothers 880 Fire Helmet Antique FiremanLeather Fire Helmet Front Piece Decal Set ChicagoE.m.t. Fire Rescue 2006 Fire Dex Coat 60% Kevlar Xl. Pants 36. And Helmet Wholesale Lot 5 X Assorted Fire Fighter Department Baseball Cap Hat Ht-182-5Chicago Fire Department Baseball Team Hat / Cap Flexfit Richardson Large/x-largeVtg Bullard Wildland Full Brim Fire Helmet Hard Hat Idaho Department Of Lands Vintage Metal Tootsietoy Jr. Fire Chief Car, Helmet, & Badge On CardFiredome Fire Fighter Helmet Vintage Set 3 Bulldogs Fire Dept. Helmet Hat Kentucky Souvenir JapanFirefighter Helmet Leather Shield Fireman Fire Millville 84 LieutenantWholesale Lot 5 X Assorted Fire Fighter First In Last Out Baseball Cap Hat Ht519Wholesale Lot 5 X Assorted Fire Fighter First In Last Out Baseball Cap Hat Ht519Fire Fighter Fire Truck Hat Pins Lapel Pins Lot Of 11 Pinbacks Lapel Hat Pins- Elephant - With Fire Hat & Hose, 3" Roman Co. Cute,cute,cute!!!Cairns 1044 Structural Firefighting HelmetFirefighter Helmet Leather Shield Fireman Fire Captain 2303 Lake ElizaFirefighter Helmet Leather Shield Fireman Fire Canton Asst Chief RescueRussian Fireman's Hard Hat Soviet Firefighter Fire Helmet Type Kp-80 1970's 80'sWholesale Lot 5 X Assorted Fire Fighter Department Baseball Cap Hat Ht-182-5