Fire Helmet, "Union / 1 / 1780"

The traditional American leather firefighter’s helmet with its distinctive long rear brim, frontpiece, and crest adornment was first developed around 1821-1836 in New York City. Henry T. Gratacap, a New York City luggage maker by trade, is often credited as the developer of this style of fire helmet. Gratacap created a specially treated leather helmet with a segmented “comb” design that led to unparalleled durability and strength. The elongated rear brim (also known as a duckbill or beavertail) and frontpiece were 19th century innovations that remain the most identifiable feature of firefighter’s helmets. The body of the helmet was primarily designed to deflect falling debris, the rear brim prevented water from running down firefighters’ backs, and their sturdy crowns could aid, if necessary, in breaking windows.
This leather fire helmet was made by Cairns & Brother of New York, New York during the 19th century. The helmet is painted white with four combs and ivy-vine scrollwork stamped around the brim. The date “1780” is painted in red on the rear brim. The hat has a metal eagle frontpiece holder mounted on the crown, with a silver metal frontpiece that reads “UNION/1/1780” in stamped brass plate, with an image of a steam engine in stamped brass above the “1”. The ornate nature of the frontpiece may mean that this hat was primarily worn during parades and ceremonial functions.
Currently not on view
Object Name
helmet, fire
date made
19th century
Cairns & Brother
Physical Description
metal (part: shield material)
leather (overall material)
overall: 9 in x 11 in x 14 in; 22.86 cm x 27.94 cm x 35.56 cm
place made
United States: New York, New York
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Clothing & Accessories
Firefighting Collection
Fire Helmets
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Fire Fighting and Law Enforcement
Fire Helmets
Firefighting Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection
Additional Media

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