Leather Fire Helmets


Jacobus Turck of New York City is credited with inventing the first fire cap around 1740.  It was round with a high crown and narrow rim and was made of leather.  Improvements on his design were made by Mathew DuBois, who sewed iron wire in to the edge of the brim to give the helmet shape and strength, and provide resistance to heat, moisture, and warping.  The leather helmet as it is known today came from a very modest and non-fire related beginning.  Although the year the traditional fire helmet was invented is mired in speculation and debate, it is generally agreed upon as sometime between 1821 and 1836.  The gentleman credited with its founding was named Henry T. Gratacap.  Gratacap was a volunteer fireman in New York City, but made his living as a luggage maker.  He had made quite a name for himself because of his innovative luggage specifically designed for ocean transit.  It was made of leather that was specially treated, which offered unparalleled durability and withstood wetness without rotting.  These qualities were very desirable in a fire helmet as well and Gratacap designed the first “eight comb” (a design composed of eight segments) fire helmet.  It was named the “New Yorker” and originally adopted by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) in the late 1800s.
The New Yorker helmet has remained virtually unchanged through approximately 168 years of faithful and steadfast service.  The New Yorker helmet retains the same look and quality that generations after generations of firefighters have relied upon.  They are made of stout tanned Western cowhide, a quarter of an inch thick, reinforced with leather strips which rise like Gothic arches inside the crown.  The long duckbill, or beavertail, which sticks out at the rear, is to keep water from running down firemen's necks.  Originally, these helmets were sometimes worn backwards so the beavertail would protect its wearer from the intense heat of firefighting.  Additionally, some tillermen (a name for the driver of the rear section of a tractor drawn aerial truck) would also wear them backwards to protect their faces from rain and snow.
During this time, two brothers named Cairns were operating a metal badge button and insignia business in New York City.  The Cairns Brothers are credited with the idea of mounting an identification badge to the front of Gratacap’s helmets; today these are known as front pieces.
The two companies operated cooperatively until Gratacap’s retirement sometime in the 1850s, when the Cairns & Brother legacy was born; Cairns & Brother has pioneered firefighter helmet technology ever since.  Cairns & Brother's commitment to protecting lives is evident in their "systems," where engineered components synergistically work together for unparalleled protection in harsh environments.  The original OSHA compliant leather helmet, it is individually hand shaped, hand trimmed, and hand stitched to meet the strenuous demands of today’s most dangerous profession – firefighting.
The Leatherhead is a term used for a firefighter who uses the leather helmet for protection from the hazards we face everyday on the streets.  The Leather Helmet is an international sign of a Firefighter, a symbol that is significant in not only tradition from the early years of firefighting, but one of bravery, integrity, honor and pride.  This helmet is a sign of who we are, not what we are.
The leather helmet of choice for Salisbury FOOLS is the Cairns & Brother New Yorker N5A.
Although not a required component of the helmet, those of us who truly live the tradition wear a brass eagle adornment that graces the top of the helmet and secures its front piece.  In our simple, childish way, we always believed that the eagle adorning our helmet meant something special, maybe the spirit of American enterprise, or onward to victory.  We were wrong.  The eagle, it seems, just happened, and has no particular significance at all.  Long, long ago, around 1825 to be exact, an unknown sculptor did a commemorative figure for the grave of a volunteer fireman.  You can see it in Trinity Churchyard today; it shows the hero issuing from the flames, his trumpet in one hand, a sleeping babe in the other, and on his helmet, an eagle.  Firefighters were not wearing eagles at the time; it was a flight of pure fancy on the sculptor's part.  But as soon as the firemen saw it, they thought it was a splendid idea and it was widely adopted.  It has remained on firemen's helmets ever since, in spite of the fact that it has proved, frequently and conclusively, to be a dangerous and expensive ornament indeed.  It sticks up in the air.  It catches its beak in window sashes, on telephone wires.  It is always getting dented, bent and knocked off.  Every so often, some realist points out how much safer and cheaper it would be to do away with the eagle, but we who live the tradition always refuse.
Leather Forever!

                                   N5A/N6A Maintenance Procedures

Taking care of your Cairn’s leather helmet is both a good financial investment as well as an investment in your personal safety. Taking care of your leather helmet will ensure it a long life.

Remember, your leather helmet is made from the hide of an American steer. While this hide is very tough, it has many of the same limitations as your own skin. Special care should be taken to avoid Alkali or strong acids; also strong solvents such as lacquer thinner or acetone should be avoided. Your leather helmet does not have any oils or preservatives in it. In fact, none are needed since the leather fibers have been impregnated with a hardening agent. Silicone, leather preservatives, and other such products should not be used on the helmet. Unlike human skin, the thick steer hide of your leather helmet can withstand a considerable amount of heat over short periods of time. Leather helmets have performed very well in atmospheres approximating 300 degrees Fahrenheit for upwards of 20-30 minutes.

The conditions most detrimental to your leather helmet’s longevity are the exposure of the leather itself to drying and/or the continuous cycle of wetting and drying. All exposed leather should be covered with either a high grade primer and/or paint. It is not recommended to store your leather helmet in areas subject to high heat. Also, leather helmets equipped with ratchet headbands should be stored upside down in order to not deform the ratchet band.


After each use, the helmet should be rinsed with clean water to remove all dirt and debris. At this time, it could be washed with a mild detergent and luke warm water to more actively remove the grime of fire. To remove drippings of tar, the leather itself can be treated with a type of tar remover used in the automotive industry. Other spots can be cleaned with alcohol if an organic solvent is required. After cleaning your helmet it should be inspected for cracks or deformities to the shell and/or impact cap.

For more information, contact Cairns/MSA Customer Service at: 1-877-MSA-FIRE

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