This time of year, when the air starts to get a bit more brisk, the dusk creeps in slightly earlier each day, and the last vestiges of carefree summer start to feel like a half-forgotten dream, I tend to find myself staring out the window, facing another day, one day closer to winter. Sitting there as time passes me by, passes us all by, really, inching us closer to our inevitable end, mulling all of this over, as the clock ticks, and I know I’m late, but I can’t seem to move, can’t seem to jump into action because of one horrifying barrier: I have nothing to wear.
Whether you’re in need of a fresh back-to-school ensemble, something to replace your post-Labor-Day white items, or are simply chilled by the approaching terror of cold weather, this season brings out a clothing crisis mindset. So I thought I’d distract you from your wardrobe woes with a Sistorical look at my favorite historical clothing item: the fire hat.
You likely recognize the iconic fireman’s hat today in all its bright red glory — a favorite of toddlers and grown men alike, not to mention college girls on Halloween. A truly democratic chapeau. A cap for all seasons. It looks good on everyone!
Just how did this come to be the standard uniform for our brave, heat-tolerant warriors?
Back in the 18th century, volunteer firefighters wore hats made of felt, as the fabric is naturally flame resistant. 18th-century fires, like 21st-century fires, were hectic, topsy-turvy events with all kinds of people running around — I’m envisioning a Richard Scarry-esque scene — and it soon became clear that a system was needed to keep track of who’s who. As a result, it became popular for firefighters to paint their company’s name on their hats so that they could be identified. (And have you ever tried to paint on felt? It is a crafter’s worst nightmare.)
This was a good idea, but quickly got out of hand.
Volunteer firefighters, like a 1990s tween girl with an AIM profile, started adding additional details. Like, a lot of additional details.
Hats began to feature not only the company name, but also the company motto and founding date, perhaps with an icon or two. Then the owner’s initials were painted on the top of the hat, and the stovepipe band featured portraits of notable figures, scenes from history or literature, ornate drawings and images. Different features indicated how a fireman identified politically and culturally, and showed his position on hot-button issues like religion and immigration.
Obviously, these hats contained a lot more information than anyone would like to absorb while being tickled with real live flames. So these firefighters found a second use for their hats, popping them on each time they had to march in a parade — which, as it turns out, was pretty frequently. And because these hats contained so much data on a person’s identity and beliefs, wearing one in a parade was equivalent to making a political statement. It was an efficient piece of clothing. It was like a Facebook status update on your head.
Here’s an example of a fire hat from the early 1800s, courtesy of the Smithsonian. Clearly the owner restrained themselves on this one, as it is fairly plain, and it probably was made before the ornate, elaborate fire-hat decor really started to take off in the late 19th century. This features a portrait of Benjamin Franklin — the founder of the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia — ensconced in banners reading “Frankline/Hose Comp’y.”
It looks extremely stately and kind of gorgeous and pretty much useless in a fire. How would that stay on one’s head?
Despite their sexy stovepipe style and the delightful amount of information they stored, these hats did not stand the test of time for adorning the heads of America’s firemen. By the 1820s, an FDNY volunteer firefighter, Henry Gratacap, sought to replace these floppy tops with something sturdier. He created a hat-helmet combo made of super tough leather, which protected firefighters’ heads a lot better than felt. These hats had a hard front so that they could be used as a weapon to break through windows, and a wide brim in the back to keep heat and flame off the neck. He also put that iconic shield-shape on the front of the hat, which would make clear the fighter’s company, unit, rank and any other identifying information needed. This evolved into the modern firehat that you see today.
So this fall, as you put away your flip-flops and crop-tops, break out your boots and hats, and cozy up around a bonfire, remember those who came before us. Remember those who had to show up at fires with felt hats on. Remember those who had to wear incredibly uncomfortable, solid leather bucket hats to fight fires. And while remembering this, please also remember to contain your outdoor fire so that nobody has to put on all of that fashionable gear to save you.