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.