Firefighter helmets, in the earliest stages, were "stove pipe" type helmets that strongly resembled the top hat made famous by President Abraham Lincoln. They were made of a rigid leather material with the name of the department the firefighter worked for painted on the front, and didn’t serve much of a safety purpose, only to signal which department the firefighter belonged to.
The traditional fire helmet was founded by an FDNY volunteer firefighter, Henry T. Gratacap, sometime between 1821 and 1836. Made from very tough leather sewn at each of the combs of the helmet, Gratacap designed the helmet to be fully functional. The reinforced dome was used to protect the firefighter from falling objects. The tall front shield was designed to break windows for rescue and ventilation. The rear brim of was used to protect the back of the neck from intense heat and scorching water. It could also be worn backwards to protect the firefighter from heat if he put his chin to his chest, or while responding to a scene, protecting the wearer from heavy rain or snow in the days of the horse-drawn carriages. The helmet being thrown out a window became the universal sign of a firefighter's cry for help. The helmet originally came with four combs, crossing the helmet both lengthwise and widthwise. Later, after it was discovered that the more combs a helmet came with, the stronger it became, a helmet with eight, twelve, and sixteen combs came out.
Soon after Gratacap started producing these helmets, two brothers by the name of Cairns came up with the idea of identification badges on the front of the helmets. These traditionally came in the shape of a guitar pick, wide near the brim of the helmet and ending at a point with a brass eagle extending from the top of the helmet forward, holding the shield in place. The brass eagle joined the ensemble of the helmet after an unknown sculptor created a figure on a volunteer firefighter's grave at the Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan, New York. This figure showed a person emerging from the flames, one hand holding a trumpet and the other holding a sleeping child, and an eagle on his helmet. Because of this, despite new studies of how the brass eagle hinders firefighters by entanglement and how the eagle gets knocked off or dented, firefighters continue to wear the eagle on their helmets.
The colors of the firefighters’ helmets also serve traditional value. Traditionally, the color of the helmet was used to highlight officers. Chiefs would wear a completely white helmet. Captains and lieutenants wore helmets with a white front, and a black or red in the back. Firefighters with black helmets were part of engine companies, and red helmets were part of ladder companies. Later, when rescue companies became, they wore blue helmets. Not long after firefighters started wearing shields on their helmets, pictures on the shields along with the department name began appearing. This was to farther articulate rank. The bugle became the universal sign of an officer of an engine company, and pick-head axes became the sign of an officer of a ladder company. Firefighters wore the fire department scramble, which consisted of a picture of a helmet, ladder, pike pole, and an axe in a circle hanging from a pole with a fork.
Today, many firefighters wear yellow helmets to aid in visibility. Not much has changed to the helmet appearance itself. The only changes consist of the fact that visors or eye shields have been added as well as earflaps and cloth mechanisms keep the inside of the helmet from resting on top of the firefighter’s head. Most of the helmets aren’t as tall as they were, but the design is the same. This has been the way things have been for almost the past 300 years, and like many other traditions in the fire service, the shape of the helmets are considered immortal.