Jacobus Turck of New York City is credited with inventing the first fire cap in approximately 1740. It was round with a high crown and narrow rim, made of leather. This design was improved by Matthew DuBois, who sewed iron wire into the edge of the brim to give the helmet shape and provide resistance to heat, moisture, and warping. The most famous of all helmet makers was Henry Gratacap, who opened his shop in 1836 and manufactured the majority of fire helmets for three decades. Gratacap is noted for raised and stitched front pieces and the eagle shield holder, which was initially leather and later changed to brass. Upon a firefighter’s retirement or promotion, presentation helmets were sometimes presented to them. These helmets were “special order,” with embossed firematic scrollwork on the back of the brim and a brass or silver plaque commemorating the event. Today, these are some of the most sought-after helmets.
The color of the helmet identifies rank and apparatus assignment. Chief Engineers typically wore helmets painted white. Fire Wardens wore helmets with black brims and white crowns. In many cities, Hook & Ladder companies wore red helmets, and members of engine companies wore helmets painted black. Helmets made strictly for parade use varied in color. It was a tradition in some departments to paint a date on the rear brim of a fire helmet, representing the date the fire company was founded. During the 1930s, Cairns and Brother introduced a new “low front helmet.” The eagle shield holder was removed, resulting in a saving of two inches in height. Modern helmets are often made of materials other than leather; however, many fire departments still insist on leather fire helmets.