Over the years we have talked about how the Fire Service, while ever changing, is a group built upon tradition. From the earliest days of this country’s history in the Fire Service there are traditions that are still carried out today. One of the longest standing traditions goes back to New York City in the early 1820’s and is credited to a luggage maker who also happened to be a volunteer on the department.
Henry Gratacap had become very well known for his custom leather luggage designed to ocean travel. The leather used in this luggage was specially treated allowing it to endure water exposure without causing the leather to rot. Consider this for a moment, what are the two prevalent conditions that firefighters will be exposed to? Heat and Moisture.
Without being treated leather can withstand temperatures of up to 400 degrees before burning coupled with Gratacap’s treated leather that resist water damage you now may have the perfect material for a Fire Helmet. Gratacap designed a fire helmet that was made up of eight segments of leather, called eight comb. The helmets were a quarter inch thick and reinforced with leather strips.
The helmet appeared to have arches rising from the brim to the peak creating an appearance of a dome. The back of the helmet was comprised of a long sloping section sometime called a beavertail or duckbill due to the shape and appearance. While the design of the duckbill was redirect falling embers or water from the wearers neck, it soon began to develop other uses. Even up into the 1980’s many fire departments did not utilize any face or respiratory protection from the heat and harmful gasses, firefighters would turn these helmets around and use the duckbill to help deflect the heat away from their faces.
The original helmets did not have any of the adornments or safety additions that we see today. Modern fire helmets know have drop down face shields, most common and traditional types are the Bourkes. Bourkes are a simple design that when not flip down rest up under the brim, virtually unseen. The most recognizable addition to these helmets is the leather fronts. These ornate fronts are generally held on by a brass eagle coming off the top of the dome. These fronts are used to identify not only your department but your rank, truck, and assignment in many cases.
Gratacap sold his company upon his retirement in the 1850’s to the company Cairns & Brothers. Cairns & Brothers is still operating today and still is a leader in the development of firefighter’s helmets. But no matter the manufacturer or the material used in construction, the New Yorker is still one of the most popular designs, and the leather Cairns New Yorker is desired by many in the fire service.
One must believe Gratacap’s had no inkling that the helmet he designed and built would still be the design of choice some two centuries later.