|By Larry LeMasters
Historians believe the first fireman’s hats originated around 1740 in Europe. The earliest hats were made of leather and fashioned like stovepipe hats (the kind Abraham Lincoln wore) and were made by saddlers, leather smiths who made saddles. These early stovepipe hats, although made to protect the head and identify fire fighters in the smoke and heat of a burning building, were for the most part useless, so they quickly evolved into smaller hats with extended, protective brims what shielded a fireman’s face from heat and debris.
By 1800, stovepipe fireman’s hats were once again fashionable, but instead of being worn to fight fires, stovepipe hats were now made and worn for parades, pomp, and ceremony. Whenever firemen dressed up for public viewing, they wore painted stovepipe leather hats. Early fireman’s hats were hand painted black, green, blue, or red, and contrasting gold coloring was sometimes used for lettering or ornamentation.
Every fire company, whether a city or volunteer company in the country, chose its own image or logo that it had painted on the hat’s central field. Black, sunfire red, and gold gilt paints were often used to paint images on the central field of hats. Besides logos, fire companies painted founding dates, mottos, and company names on their parade hats, and since all of the hats for a fire company were essentially the same, some firemen began having their initials painted on their personal hats directly above the company’s logo.
Initials on parade hats sometimes confuse novice collectors since many fireman’s parade hats bear the initials “FA.” Often found on a hat with a one or two fire hydrants, “FA” stands for “Fire Association,” which fireman were proud to belong to.
Leather hats gave way to pressed felt hats, which were lighter and more easily fashioned. Soon fireman’s pressed felt parade hats crossed the ocean and took America by storm. Fire companies in cities such as Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore began seeking public awareness and support by wearing hats and marching in city parades on St. Patrick’s Day and other holidays.
In an attempt to outshine other fire companies, firemen began to ornately decorate their stovepipe hats with portraits of historical figures (such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, and Benjamin Franklin, who was well known for organizing the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia) and patriotic scenes. Collectors love to find hats with fire companies such as Franklin Hose Company, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1838 and whose parade hats always sported a likeness of Benjamin Franklin. Because he was the Father of our country, Washington’s image was most often used on fireman’s parade hats.
Often famous portrait artists were commissioned to paint portraits on fireman’s parade hats. Some of the artists collectors look for include David Rent Etter, John Trumbull, John Woodside, David Bustill Bowser, and Thomas Sully.
About 40 years after the American Revolution ended, President Monroe welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette to a year-long (1824-25) tour of America. Lafayette had been George Washington’s aide-de-camp during the war, and he returned to America as a visiting hero.
Cities across America threw large parades to honor Lafayette and America’s 50th birthday. Fire fighters marched in all of these parades, wearing their decorative fireman’s parade hats. One famous parade hat still in existence is a hat worn by a fireman of the volunteer Liberty Fire Company of Baltimore, Md. Famed hat maker Joshua Van Sant created this hat in the 1820s.
Some fireman’s parade hat collectors enjoy collecting hats by known hat makers, such as Van Sant, but these hats are the most expensive in an already expensive collecting field. Other leather smiths who made parade hats include George Geist Stambach of Philadelphia
Fireman’s parade hats also served as political advertising when fire companies began using hats as billboards to advertise their political position on societal topics such as work, religion, slavery, and immigration.
As with all antiques, condition plays a role in fireman’s parade hat collecting. Because some of these hats were worn to fires and all of the hats were worn in parades, few parade hats exist in mint condition outside of museums. When purchasing a hat, expect minor restoration and imperfections due to age and usage.
If you are considering collecting fireman’s parade hats, mortgage your home because these hats are expensive. Many parade hats sell at auction for $20,000, and in 2016, a United States Fire Company parade hat sold at Sotheby’s for $52,000. This hat has been painted by David Bowser and sold by James Hill of Philadelphia, circa 1850.
Novice collectors wanting more information may want to read Parade Hats of America’s Early Volunteer Firemen by Courtney and Robert Booth (The Magazine Antiques, April 2004).