Fire Helmet, "John Stagg, Chief Engineer, P.F.D."

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 late19th century. The helmet consists of 64 combs and is painted white. There is an ivy vine scroll pattern around the brim and a small metal frontpiece on the rear brim that is engraved. A metal eagle’s head frontpiece holder is mounted on the top of the helmet’s crown. The gold leather frontpiece has a central image of a steam powered fire engine, with the text “CHIEF/ENGINEER/P.F.D.” The helmet belonged to John Stagg of the Paterson, New Jersey fire department. Stagg served as Chief Engineer of the Volunteer Fire Department from 1887 until 1889, and was made chief of the paid Paterson Fire Department in 1891.
Currently not on view
Object Name
helmet, fire
date made
late 19th century
Cairns & Brother
Physical Description
leather (overall material)
overall: 9 in x 14 1/2 in; 22.86 cm x 36.83 cm
place made
United States: New York, New York
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Fire Fighting and Law Enforcement
Clothing & Accessories
Fire Helmets
Firefighting Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center


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