Saturday, June 15, 2013

Top Hats to Tupperware: Fire Helmet History

At the tender age of three, most youngsters can identify a firefighter.  Even with the myriad colors, shapes, and styles today, the helmet, going back almost 200 years is synonymous with the job.  The first fire helmets, hats really, would hardly be identified as such today.  They resembled top hats, Lincolnesque in style, but with a band or painting to identify the company the individual belonged to more so than to provide protection. 

Jacob or Jacobus Turck is generally credited with this design from around 1740.  This lasted around 100 years until Henry T. Gratacap designed a new helmet constructed of hardened leather sections for protection and a large rear tail to help shed water.  Although changes and improvements have been made, the shape of this original design from around 1836 (dates differ) is the one even children could recognize today. 

Gratacap’s operation continued to grow and in 1869, he sold it to two brothers; Jasper and Henry Cairns, who possessed a last name which is arguably the most well known in the helmet business today.  Cairns brothers continued to evolve the designs and materials, but the leather helmet remained a core component of their business.  In 1937, Cairns introduced an aluminum helmet.  A generation later, in 1962, their vacuum formed polycarbonate helmet line began; and in the “modern” era, Philadelphians, Phoenix, and Metro helmets were among the new style that some saw as a radical change from the classic shape.  But it was radical only at first glance as even these helmets retained the short front brim and longer rear tail.  Helmet types and styles have developed fans and detectors over the years.  Leather helmet devotees sometimes disparage the plastic models as “Tupperware.”
Aluminum Helmet
Cairns Metro Helmet

Although safety standards have dramatically changed the interior, the exterior of a leather helmet manufactured today, as well as the classically shaped plastic versions, would no doubt be recognizable by Henry Gratacap or the original Cairns brothers.  In a world where change seems to be the only constant, that the basic design of the fire helmet could remain intact for 177 years is nothing short of amazing. 

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