by Peter Suciu
During the 19th century, many nations followed Britain’s lead in developing special “sun” or “pith” helmets for use in tropical stations and during the summer months. The British sun helmet was born in India prior to the Indian Mutiny (1857-’59). Local hat makers developed headgear that more appropriate for the harsh conditions than the tall leather shakos.
By the 1870s, various European nations that had overseas colonies including France, Spain, and the newly united Germany, adopted similar pattern helmets for protection from the sun. By most accounts, these first tropical helmets were based on the cavalry helmets of the era but certainly some were influenced by the popular Prussian Pickelhauben or “spiked helmets.”
As the United States moved westward following the American Civil War, military planners also looked to Europe when considering new uniforms that would be appropriate for the summer months. In 1875, the Secretary of War reported to Congress that the Quartermaster General had authorized the adoption of “cork helmets.” These were based on the British Foreign Service Helmet – a style that would come to be known as the “colonial pattern.” A long-standing collector’s myth has been that none of these American helmets were ever produced by the British. This is not true.
THE MODEL 1880 HELMET
In May 1880, the Quartermaster Department’s specifications were approved. These included a helmet that was to be the weight of about seven and one-fourth ounces and was to be made of a shell composed of two thicknesses of laminated (or “scarf-seamed”) cork and securely cemented together with shellac. Horstmann Brothers and Company of Philadelphia produced these first helmets, known today as the “Model 1880.” Within a year, the Quartermaster Department procured some 6,000 cork helmets and issued them to troops for use in warm climates.
In his book, Summer Helmets of the U.S. Army 1875-1910, author Gordon Chappell noted not only were these helmets to be worn in summer months as part of the field uniform, but also with the dress uniform with a spike. This appears to apply to the Army only, as no mention is made of this first pattern being used by the United States Marine Corp. Chappell did note that the helmets were far from cheap for the time, costing from $7.50 to $10 apiece based on the quality.
These early helmets—and all subsequent American patterns— are actually easily distinguished from the British counterparts. The keys for recognition are the number of panels and the seams. There were four main panels around the dome of the American sun helmet, whereas most British helmets featured six panels.
“The M1880 helmet can be found in both white and tan (khaki),” said Mark Kasal, co-author of A Guide Book to U.S. Army Dress Helmets: 1872-1904. “The issue with the white helmets was that the officers felt that they were too conspicuous, and thus, a tan version was issued. Either color could be drawn.”
THE MODEL 1887/89 HELMET
The helmet wasn’t widely liked by the troops. As a result, the military planners went back to the drawing board. By 1887, they developed a new pattern that had a longer rear nape and a deeper pitch to the visor. Whereas the earlier M1880 pattern had a drawstring at the top of the sweat-band, the new pattern did not. Apart from this, the helmets were actually very close in design. In fact, why the helmet was redesigned isn’t fully clear, except that it is worth noting the British, French and others had a variety of “colonial pattern” helmets. Perhaps Horstmann Brothers and Company simply offered an alternate design as an attempt to increase popularity with the troops.
In fact, the Model 1887 was short-lived. Manufactures replaced the white drill cloth cover the cork with khaki cloth. This helmet is traditionally known as the Model 1889. It remained the U.S. Army’s de facto sun helmet and was used during the Spanish-American Moro and subsequent insurrection in the Philippines.
In addition to the Model 1887/89, there were numerous variations of white cork helmets used by state National Guard and militia organizations. McKennedy and Company of New York City made many of these. The pattern appears to be based on the Horstmann M1880 helmet. The M1887/89 pattern presented problems when a soldier would lay prone on the battlefield.
“The M1887/89 was a terrible design in my estimation,” added Kasal. “If a soldier tried to fire his rifle or carbine while laying down, the rear cape would tip the entire helmet over this eyes! This was the same complaint that the British soldiers had with their helmets.”
The United States Marine Corps did make use of similar helmet patterns. Based on period photographs and surviving examples, it seemed that the Corps opted for helmets closer in design to those produced by McKennedy and Company. Today, however, collectors should be wary of USMC helmets because it is very easy to add a USMC cap insignia to a National Guard helmet – thus creating what should be considered a “fantasy piece.”
By the outbreak of the First World War the helmet was widely removed from use. The last U.S. Army troops to wear the M1889 helmets were likely the troops garrisoned in China, but by 1920, the helmet was taken out of service.
It is also worth noting the Marine Corps Band wore white summer helmets through the middle of the 1950s. Many of these are often erroneously presented as 19th Century helmets. Finally, “colonial pattern” style helmet is, however, still worn in service. The Royal Guard of the Hawaii National Guard, a ceremonial unit of the state’s Air National Guard, wear white sun helmets.
Origin of the Pressed Fiber Helmet
By the 1920s, most nations of Europe had begun to phase out the old colonial pattern helmet. The British had replaced it at the end of the 19th century with the Wolseley Pattern. During the inter-war era, officers privately purchased a variety of Indian pattern helmets. The French, Italians, and even the Germans developed new helmets with wider brims that offered better protection from the sun.
By the start of WWII, the American military began using pressed fiber helmets, a helmet that even remains in limited use today worn by range instructors during the summer months. In fact, this limited popularity makes this particular helmet the longest serving helmet in the history of the U.S. military! The origin dates back to 1915 when the USMC began its 20-year organization and training of the Haitian military.
THE BRITISH INFLUENCE
This particular USMC involvement in the Caribbean island began on July 28, 1915, when 330 U.S. Marines landed at Port-au-Prince. Under the authority of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, they were there to safeguard the interest of U.S. corporations. With the guidance of the Marines, the Gendarmerie of Haiti – or the Haitian Constabulary – was formed as a collaborationist police force. From 1916 until 1928, it was Haiti’s only military force.
In 1928, the Haitian Constabulary was reorganized as the Garde d’Haiti. This was the nucleus of what would eventually evolve into the modern Haitian Army. For the next five years, USMC officer trained and led the Garde d’Haiti.
When the Marines arrived in Haiti, they were wearing campaign hats. Soon thereafter, officers began to outfit themselves with locally obtained khaki sun helmets.
What is unique about this is that the helmets were not actually made in Haiti, but were of British origin! These early Marine-worn helmets were British-made helmets for export under the “Equator Brand.” Numerous British hat makers exported these to the Caribbean and Latin America under this brand throughout the first half of the 20th century. These helmets seemed to be a popular choice with the USMC officers as these helmets were rather “smart” looking while providing protection from the sun.
In British regulations, this particular pattern is known as the “Standard Pattern.” It was designed in the late 19th century and became somewhat popular as an alternative to the Wolseley or the Indian-made helmet during the interwar era. Unlike those from India that were made of sholapith, the Standard Pattern was a cork helmet. Therefore, it was a bit heavier, but much sturdier.
Apparently, the USMC liked what it saw in the pattern, but opted for a more affordable option. These helmets cost as much as $15 a piece at the time — a rather hefty sum for a military on a slim budget!
The Marines liked the shape of the helmet so much that it inspired the design of the Corps’ subsequent pressed fiber helmet. This probably explains why the ubiquitous fiber helmet features a faux puggaree wrapping around the base. A side-by-side comparison shows that the pressed fiber design was based on the Standard Pattern in both shape and style. This new pressed fiber design allowed it to be worn side-by-side with the more expensive privately purchased versions favored by officers.
The Hawley Products Company (later the maker of the early M1 helmet liners) and the International Hat Company produced hundreds of thousands of these fiber helmets—all likely owed to that military intervention in Haiti. It also demonstrates how, during both the 19th and 20th centuries, the American military looked at their British contemporaries when it came to developing a helmet that gave protection from the sun.
Peter Suciu is author of Military Suns of the World and runs the MilitarySunHelmets website, where he continues to share new findings about military tropical headdress.