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 J.C. Johnson & Company of San Francisco, California in the late 19th century. The twelve comb helmet has a crown painted white and red, with a brown brim embossed with an ivy-vine design. The San Francisco Fire Department mandated color-coded helmets, and hook and ladder companies wore red and white helmets like this one. A leather eagle frontpiece holder is mounted on the crown. The brown leather frontpiece has a white number “5” in the center with a crossed hook and ladder behind it. In a banner at the top of the frontpiece are the initials “SFFD” in white leather.
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