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The origins of the high eagle

The symbol of the eagle was not associated with firefighters until 1825. That’s when an unnamed sculptor created a commemorative sculpture on a volunteer firefighter’s grave. The sculpture showed a heroic fireman coming out of flames with a trumpet in one hand and a sleeping baby in another. On his fireman’s hat, there was an eagle. Local firefighters adapted this imagery and started wearing eagles on their helmets as well. The symbol became widespread after that, and is still associated with firefighting today.

Leather firefighter helmet
Cairns & Brother High Eagle leather fireman’s helmet composed of an eight-comb pattern, adorned with a tin eagle, in the Dunn County Historical Society collection.

In the 1800s, when the symbol was first adopted by firemen, the eagle protruded from the front of their helmets and held the window sashes in front of the fireman’s eyes that protected them from smoke and debris. This style of helmet was called a “high eagle” and was popularized by Gratacap, a helmet manufacturing company, in 1836. The eagle was typically made of brass and was accompanied by an eight-comb leather helmet. The hard, brass point of the eagle was meant to create holes in and break down the elements of a building that the fireman would face while in a burning building.

However, the brass eagles proved cheap and dangerous since they frequently broke. After a time, the fire departments chose to switch to metal or composite helmets. High eagle helmets are still used for ceremonial purposes but are retired from field work. Due to its history as a symbol for bravery and strength within the firefighting community, the eagle is still frequently seen within the context of firefighting. Today you can spot the eagle insignia in many places such as fire rigs, fire trucks, fire helmets, fire department logos and fire buildings alike. It is usually accompanied by an American flag or the symbol of a specific department.


Abby Kuisle is a student in the Professional Communication and Emerging Media program at UW-Stout, concentrating in Journalism and Digital Humanities.

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