The Original New Yorker - The Birth Of The Modern Fire Helmet April 22 2019, 0 Comments

Although the first fire helmet was invented around 1740, the modern American fire helmet was created around 1820 by a leathersmith named Henry T. Gratacap.  Gratacap was a luggage maker by trade and a volunteer NY firefighter.  He gained a reputation for making durable luggage for trans-oceanic travel.  His leather luggage was specially treated to offer unparalleled durability that withstood moisture and rotting.  That innovation in Gratacap luggage translated well to the fire helmet.

Example of a Gratacap helmet displayed at the National Museum of American History

When Gratacap began working on the fire helmet, he designed the first eight comb helmet (eight segments). When the helmet was stitched together it made for an extremely strong and durable design.  He called it 'The New Yorker.'

The rear of the helmet, also known as the duckbill or beavertail was elongated and its purpose was to keep water and hot embers from running down the wearers back.  Firefighters were known to put the helmets on backwards to use the duckbill to shield their faces from the heat of the fire.  In later years, truckies would also wear the helmet backwards as it was easier to look skyward as they climbed ladders.  Additionally, a backwards helmet protected their eyes from rain and snow as they drove the open tillers.


The helmets were stamped with a flower pattern that circled the edge of the brim and most Gratacap helmets bear his maker's mark on the rear brim.

When we designed 'The Original New Yorker' tee, we worked very hard to incorporate the original elements of the Gratacap New Yorker into the design.  His maker's mark and the flower pattern are faithfully duplicated as well as the helmet itself.

The 'New Yorker' was originally adopted as the official helmet by the New York City Fire Department in the late 1800's and it's design, while slightly refined has remained virtually unchanged.  The modern 'New Yorker' fire helmet has a cult-like following and the leather helmets are frequently restored, passed down from generation to generation and put right back into service.  The wearers of the modern 'New Yorker' swear by the same tenets: durability, perfection of design and history.  Other modern composite designs may have the same shape, but there is nothing quite like a 'New Yorker.'  If there is a better symbol for the American Fire Service than the traditional leather fire helmet, I have never found one.


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