Fire Helmet, "Cheif Engineer C.F.D."

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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 made by Cairns & Brother of New York, New York in the late 19th century. The helmet is painted white overall, with 16 combs, the four main combs are painted gold. An ivy-vine scrollwork pattern is stamped around the brim of the helmet, and the edge of the helmet is painted gold. The rear brim has a design of crossed hooks and ladders surrounded by a hose and trumpets, with an inset metal frontpiece that bears the inscription “J. McNally by Senate H & L Co. 1, Sing Sing, July 1886.” A metal eagle’s head mounted to the crown of the helmet serves as a frontpiece holder. The crudely-rendered frontpiece reads “CHEIF (sic) ENGINEER/C.F.D.” with a painting of a goose neck, piano-style hand-pump engine in the center. The frontpiece may not be original to the helmet.
Currently not on view
date made
ca 1886
Cairns & Brother
place made
United States: New York, New York
Physical Description
leather (overall material)
overall: 8 3/4 in x 14 1/4 in; 22.225 cm x 36.195 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection
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


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