Fire Helmet, "Washington 1"

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 helmet was manufactured around 1858. The black leather hat has 32 combs and stamped ivy-vine scrollwork around the rim. The back brim of the helmet has a metal frontpiece insert that bears the inscription “Presented to J.H. Bryant, Clerk of Washington Engine No. 5 Charleston by John Wildly Fireman of Oceanus No. 11 of New York, July 4 1858.” The helmet has a metal lion frontpiece-holder mounted on the crown, with a frontpiece of black and red painted leather. The frontpiece reads “Washington/1” with a crossed hook and ladder behind the “1” in the center of the frontpiece. Not much is known about Washington Engine No. 5, but Oceanus No. 11 consisted of mechanics and operated from Franklin Square in New York. Oceanus No. 11 was renowned for its friendly competitions with rival companies in bouts of engine racing and pumping exhibitions.
Currently not on view
Object Name
helmet, fire
date made
ca 1858
Physical Description
leather (overall material)
overall: 9 in x 15 1/2 in x 10 1/4 in; 22.86 cm x 39.37 cm x 26.035 cm
place made
United States
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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