The design of firefighting

By Sarah Gastler

Behind every object there is a story and for fire fighter helmets it begins with the initial idea and design, then continues on to the design refinements. This classic ‘New York’ firefighters helmet design began in and developed throughout the mid 1800’s. The first material chosen was leather which is durable, moldable and resistant to fire. There wasn’t much more to it than that. This #20 leather helmet has a bit more and is a mix of practicality and aesthetics.

The brim was designed to be long in the back in order to protect the neck. (Sometimes these helmets were worn in reverse; the brim shielding the face from heat.) Inside the cap there are adjustable parts allowing for the helmet to fit snugly on the head. There is a fold out felt neck liner. The design is also loaded with aesthetic details; the leather brim is stamped (customized to each company) with a twisting vine and leaf decoration. A brass eagle rises off the front to clamp onto the identification badge, the fire department’s emblem is imprinted on the brass clamp. The exposed leather structural seams have also become part of the iconic aesthetic of the helmet.

Modern Composite Helmet

Today leather helmets are still being made in a similar fashion, with additional high-tech materials. On an episode of How It’s Made, the process reveals that there is still a significant amount of handwork involved in crafting leather helmets. Today there are also new designs of helmets for specific functions. These helmets use new materials like thermoplastic, or are of composite material. These improvements increase the strength of the helmet, reduce its weight and allow for additional features like flashlight clamps, goggles, face shields, etc. However sleek and new these helmets are, they still echo the initial design of the leather helmets. The classic eight seam lines are still emphasized on the Modern Composite Helmet and the thermoplastic helmet sports a more refined, elongated rear brim.

Given the nature of the work, firefighter helmets develop their own history from the person who wore it and from the work that it helped accomplish. This helmet didn’t just arrive at the museum, fresh out of a box. It burst through doors, braved falling embers, raced along on screaming fire trucks through the streets of New York City, and waited reliably to be put on, day and night, year after year. It shows. After a lifetime of thrilling hard work, the paint and underlying coatings are chipping from the leather, there is wear on the brim, the shape of the hat piece has warped and I’m even going to say that the smell of sweat still clings to the inside fabric. With such a mixture of history and design, it’s not just something you get rid of. Life at the museum sounds like a calm retirement to an old hat and it’s worth it to have it here. The #20 Cairns and Brothers Leather Firefighter’s helmet emphasizes that great designs like this are ultimately made for the purpose of aiding people in real life situations. (This one was for J. Zimmerman.) There’s something to be admired in that.

Episode of How It’s Made:

MSA Company – Cairns & Brothers History

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