As New York and Brooklyn became increasingly dense cities, the specter of fire and its destructive potential loomed large.
In Brooklyn, beginning in 1785, local citizens regularly selected their volunteer firefighters at town meetings. For the next 84 years, an expanding network of volunteers fought fires across Brooklyn. Station crews worked independently of each other, sometimes leading to competition between teams to reach fires first.
Ultimately, the volunteer system was not sustainable in the face of Brooklyn’s rapid geographic and population growth. In 1869, Brooklyn city officials replaced this volunteer system with the better organized full-time and professional Metropolitan Fire Department. After the professionalization of firefighting, the former volunteers, “retired” but, still proud of their service, began organizing Volunteer Firemen’s Associations, civic groups united in their nostalgia and camaraderie.
This ceremonial leather helmet belonged to a member of Brooklyn’s Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Association, founded in 1887. The initials “GHS” on the helmet’s decorative front piece refer to one of the associations members. Although further research is required, the owner may have been Brooklynite Gilbert H. Slote (1839-1919), an early member of the association.
Our collections staff has recently cataloged and photographed all 5,700 items in BHS’s historic artifact collection. We are excited to make this collection available online for the first time! Explore more artifacts in our Digital Collections.