Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pith Helmets – The Original Sun Hat!

One of the most popular postings I ever wrote for this blog was about hats. It continues to be searched, read, viewed and commented on, much to my disbelief and amazement.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog and likes hats. I like hats too. Hats are neat.

I’m taking this opportunity to write about the fascinating and whimsical story behind one type of hat in particular. A hat which has generally fallen out of favour, ever since the late 20th century, and which has yet to undergo any sort of serious mainstream revival.

I am of course talking about the Pith Helmet.

Boaters, Panamas, Trilbies, Homburgs, Fedoras, flat-caps, panel-caps, Fez-caps, Greek fishing-caps, even the deerstalker hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes, and countless other items of headwear have all survived well into the 21st century. Most men and women would wear them anywhere and everywhere, and think absolutely nothing of it. And yet, the same freedom of movement has somehow never been afforded to the humble pith helmet, which I think is a shame, given its noble history and many excellent qualities.

This post aims to explain the wonders of the Pith Helmet. What makes it such an iconic and fascinating…well…hat…essentially, and why it lasted so long.

What Is a ‘Pith Helmet’?

The Pith Helmet is a hard-shell, high-crowned hat with a wide, sloping brim made of the ‘pith’ (soft heartwood) of the Sola plant. It’s for this reason they’re also called ‘Sola Topees’ or Sola hats. Other names include sun-hats or sun-helmets. Pith helmets are constructed thus: Soft pith from the Sola plant is placed on a mold and glued on, layer after layer, forming the shell of the helmet. The helmets are built up kind of like how you make papier-mache. Once the glue dries and a hard shell has been attained, the helmet is removed from the mold and is swathed in tight-fitting cotton to protect the shell.

Originally, this cotton covering was white, but over time, most pith helmets were stained an earthy sand colour called Khaki. This was originally a form of camouflage in the sandy regions of Africa, India and the Middle East, but soon it became standard on most pith helmets. These days, pith helmets are typically manufactured in two colours – white, and khaki. There is no real distinction between one or the other, except that white pith helmets are used largely for ceremonial roles, and khaki pith helmets are used for more practical roles.

The word ‘Khaki’ comes from the Persian word ‘Khak’, which literally means ‘soil’. Therefore – Khaki-coloured helmets were helmets which were the colour of soil, or dust. Some people in Britain still use the slang-word ‘khak’ to this day, meaning general filth, grit, grime and mess.

What are Pith Helmets Made Of?

Traditionally, pith helmets were constructed of sola pith, although when pith wasn’t available, they were also made of cork. Today, helmets tend to be made out of one or the other, depending on local resources. Pith helmets made in Vietnam (where a lot of pith helmets are made for export) are still made of traditional pith.

What is the Purpose of a Pith Helmet?

OK, they look cool…but…what the hell do they DO??

The Pith Helmet’s design was taken from the German Pickelhaube helmet (Those fancy Prussian ones with the brass spikes on top), and came into being around the mid-1800s. The Pith Helmet was designed for use in hot, dry and humid climates, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and India. It has a number of features which make it ideal for these kinds of conditions. Let’s see what they are…

My own pith helmet, made of cork, lined in dark khaki cotton fabric with a neatly folded puggaree around the crown. Leather chin-strap and six riveted ventilation holes. French colonial style.

The pith helmet has a high crown. This keeps the top of the helmet away from your hair and prevents sweat-buildup. The hard shell made of pith means that no matter what happens, it won’t cave in and cause sweat to build up in your hair. The helmet comes with steel-reinforced ventilation holes. The number of vent-holes varies depending on the style of helmet you have. My helmet up above is the French colonial style. These traditionally came with six vent-holes – three on each side, arranged in a triangle. Wind blowing through the vent-holes cool the head down and wick away sweat.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the pith helmet is the wide, sloping brim. This is designed to keep the sun and rain off your face and neck. The leather belt across the front brim is actually meant to be a chin-strap, stored up there when not in use.

However, one of the most famous characteristics of the pith helmet is that it’s designed to get wet!

Soaking your Helmet

Pith helmets (Well-made ones, anyway), are designed to be soaking wet when they’re used. A good-quality cork, or pith helmet is designed to retain water. On a hot day, dunk the helmet in a bucket of water, or flip the crown upside down and fill it with water and let it soak in for a few hours. Drain off the excess water, shake the helmet to remove the runoff, and then put it on.

Out in the heat of the sun, the water evaporating from the helmet will keep you cool. The helmet’s rigid shape will stop the water getting all over you and the hard shell won’t collapse on top of your head. So long as the helmet is regularly re-hydrated, it’ll remain cool and comforting throughout the day. It was the pith helmet’s ability to act as your own personal cooling-device that made it so popular in hot and humid countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The History of the Pith Helmet

Developed in the mid-1800s, the pith helmet was originally military-wear. It was modeled after the German Pickelhaube helmet and was issued to troops stationed in Africa, the Middle East and Asia from the 1850s up until after the Second World War. Apart from soldiers, they were also issued to police-officers in places like China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya and Australia.

Helmets were originally white, but the whiteness made the soldiers which wore them a target to the enemy. To make them less conspicuous, they covered them in dust and sand. This stained them a sandy yellow-brown hue which was named ‘Khaki’, after the Persian ‘Khak’ (‘Dirt’). This led to the helmets being manufactured in both white and khaki. The colours of the helmets issued to soldiers varied according to the uniforms they wore and the ranks they held. Badges of rank were placed on the fronts of the helmets.

The pith helmet soon became popular with Western civilians living in hot climates and it was worn by both men and women. Europeans going to South America, Panama, the Caribbean, Africa, or Asia would buy a pith helmet before going. In fact for a time it was believed that if you were going to these places, you NEEDED a pith helmet because the paler Caucasian complexion was too fragile to bear up under such strong, equatorial sunbeams. A large, broad-brimmed helmet to provide defense against the rays was essential!

Pith helmets continued to be popular, and continued to be military-issued, right up until the 1950s. Due to the wide range of locales where they saw service, pith helmets gradually developed into about half a dozen different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation.

The Types of Pith Helmets

Over time, the pith helmet developed into about six different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation. They were, in no particular order…

Foreign Service Helmet

The Foreign Service Helmet is the quintessential Victorian-era British pith-helmet! It conjures up images of the colonial wars of the 1800s, of Safaris in Africa, of the British Raj, of the film ‘Zulu’, and the big game hunters of old. The Foreign Service Helmet has the highest crown. It also has a protruding, beak-like rim and sloping back. These are designed to keep sun and rain off the face and neck. They were available in both white and Khaki.

French-Style Pith Helmet

To protect them from the heat in such places as French North Africa, French Guiana and French Indochina, the French Army adopted this pith helmet. It’s got a low crown, it’s oval-shaped with a wide, turned-down brim. It has six vent-holes (three on each side) for cooling the head.

USMC Pith Helmet

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) adopted the pith helmet as part of its uniform starting in the early 1900s. At first-glance, it looks just like the French one, but it’s got a much higher crown and more vent-holes. Twelve, instead of six.

Bombay Bowler

Winston Churchill wearing a Bombay Bowler

Named after the Indian city of Bombay, this type of pith helmet was more ‘hat-like’ than other helmets and was designed more for civilian wear than military use, despite this, it still had the same characteristics as all the other helmets – it was lightweight and retained water for use in hot climates. While other helmets were more rounded, the Bombay Bowler has a flatter crown and straighter edges.

Vietnamese Pith Helmet

Worn by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, this pith helmet is one of the most distinctive styles ever made. It is the only commonly-accepted version of the pith-helmet which isn’t white or khaki – but green, to go with classic Military Green of army uniforms. It’s also the most ‘bowl-like’ of the helmets, having a uniform dome-like crown and rim.

The Safari Helmet

The more generic ‘safari’ helmet

 

The last style of pith-helmet is the safari helmet. This varied significantly in size, crown-shape and height, and the number of ventilation holes. It doesn’t conform to any particular style previously mentioned. It most closely resembles the French-style pith helmet, but the positioning and number of the vent-holes does not always match the traditional three on each side, set out in an upright triangle.

These various styles of pith helmets remained common up until the mid-20th century but are now usually worn only for costumes, parade/ceremonial uniforms, or historical reenactments. That said, a well-made pith helmet is still one which will fulfill its original functions and capabilities as orginally intended. The next time you head out into the wilderness with a break-open shotgun and a yen for some big game, perhaps bring one along. If you go camping in the bush, the desert or the outback, one of these might prove useful. If nothing else, it’ll help hold a small amount of water if you turn it upside-down! They’re whimsical, useful, classic, charming and practical.

 

15 thoughts on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pith Helmets – The Original Sun Hat!

  1. tajmutthall says:

    This is wonderful! I don’t have a pith helmet yet in my collection, but now I want one. Thanks for all the back story, details on styles, and culture to go with it.

     
  2. tajmutthall says:

    This is wonderful! I don’t have a pith helmet yet in my collection, but now I want one. Thanks for all the back story, details on styles, and culture to go with it.

     
  3. Evangeliene Pappas says:

    I have worn a series of USMC pith helmets every summer in Texas for over 30 years now.They are getting somewhat hard to find.My first one I purchased at an army surplus store in Galveston and I have been a fan ever since.They are perfect for wearing out in the Texas sun. Yes! You can soak them and they act as your own personal low tech evaporative air conditioner ! Its a great design and I get frequent questions on “where did you get that hat ?” I’m a Texan….but I’ll NEVER have a “red neck” wearing one of these!

     
  4. Evangeliene Pappas says:

    I have worn a series of USMC pith helmets every summer in Texas for over 30 years now.They are getting somewhat hard to find.My first one I purchased at an army surplus store in Galveston and I have been a fan ever since.They are perfect for wearing out in the Texas sun. Yes! You can soak them and they act as your own personal low tech evaporative air conditioner ! Its a great design and I get frequent questions on “where did you get that hat ?” I’m a Texan….but I’ll NEVER have a “red neck” wearing one of these!

     
  5. john bannon says:

    Fascinating, unique and educational article.

     
  6. john bannon says:

    Fascinating, unique and educational article.

     
  7. liz says:

    I originally bought a pith helmet to wear at the beach since my straw hat kept blowing off my head. The pith helmet is heavy enough to stay put and mine has a terry cloth band inside which absorbs any sweat on your forehead. I love my hat and now I wear it mostly in the garden. Yea hats!!!

     
  8. liz says:

    I originally bought a pith helmet to wear at the beach since my straw hat kept blowing off my head. The pith helmet is heavy enough to stay put and mine has a terry cloth band inside which absorbs any sweat on your forehead. I love my hat and now I wear it mostly in the garden. Yea hats!!!

     
  9. Peter Suciu says:

    This information is only partially accurate. I don’t mean to be rude, but there are some factual errors in this history of the pith helmet.

    First the helmet wasn’t based on the German spiked helmet. The pith helmet and the German – actually Prussian as there was no united Germany until 1871 – pickelhaube originated around the same time, but they are really unrelated. It is that military uniforms in general were changing and classical – as in Greek and Roman – style helmets were being adopted.

    The pith helmet actually originated in India in the 1820 or thereabouts. It was adopted by the British military by the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and became a standard part of the uniform as the Foreign Service Helmet in 1877. There is also no such thing as a “French pattern,” as numerous nations wore helmets that evolved from the Bombay Bowler or Cawnpore helmets.

    The French actually used two patterns that were similar to the British Foreign Service Helmet, and only adopted something close to the author’s so-called “French pattern” in the 1930s as the Model 1931. Moreover, the USMC helmet was adopted at the outset of WWII and it is made of pressed fiber. The USMC and U.S. Army instead in the 19th century wore a helmet very similar – but not the same – as the British helmets.

    There is some good information here but I would advise the author to do more research on the subject as many of the facts presented are completely wrong.

    I have collected sun helmets for more than 30 years since I was a teenager and I have written dozens of articles on the topic. I currently have about 450+ helmets in my collection, so I know that research is the key to understanding any subject.

    I even have some sun/pith helmets for sale at present time.

    Cheers,
    Peter Suciu
    Author of Military Sun Helmets of the World
    http://www.militarysunhelmets.com
    http://www.plundererpete.com

     
  10. Peter Suciu says:

    This information is only partially accurate. I don’t mean to be rude, but there are some factual errors in this history of the pith helmet.

    First the helmet wasn’t based on the German spiked helmet. The pith helmet and the German – actually Prussian as there was no united Germany until 1871 – pickelhaube originated around the same time, but they are really unrelated. It is that military uniforms in general were changing and classical – as in Greek and Roman – style helmets were being adopted.

    The pith helmet actually originated in India in the 1820 or thereabouts. It was adopted by the British military by the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and became a standard part of the uniform as the Foreign Service Helmet in 1877. There is also no such thing as a “French pattern,” as numerous nations wore helmets that evolved from the Bombay Bowler or Cawnpore helmets.

    The French actually used two patterns that were similar to the British Foreign Service Helmet, and only adopted something close to the author’s so-called “French pattern” in the 1930s as the Model 1931. Moreover, the USMC helmet was adopted at the outset of WWII and it is made of pressed fiber. The USMC and U.S. Army instead in the 19th century wore a helmet very similar – but not the same – as the British helmets.

    There is some good information here but I would advise the author to do more research on the subject as many of the facts presented are completely wrong.

    I have collected sun helmets for more than 30 years since I was a teenager and I have written dozens of articles on the topic. I currently have about 450+ helmets in my collection, so I know that research is the key to understanding any subject.

    I even have some sun/pith helmets for sale at present time.

    Cheers,
    Peter Suciu
    Author of Military Sun Helmets of the World
    http://www.militarysunhelmets.com
    http://www.plundererpete.com

     
  11. Mark says:

    Great article… There are so many great options out there, I don;t understand why most (North Americans) continue to wear a baseball hat to protect themselves from the sun.

     
  12. […] Returning to those writers that have conjectured on vagaries of Burma, Kipling’s fondness for the waxed-moustached discipline and duty of the British Empire was well noted.  Whereas Orwell’s loathing for the Empire, especially on what he saw in Burma, was held in equal measure.  My personal sympathies fall a tad closer to George’s than Rudyard’s on this imperial scale, although that said I think I would have looked quite the dandy in a safari suit and pith helmet. […]

     
  13. Mark says:

    I’d like to know the source(s) for the “fact” that pith helmets were designed to be soaked. I hear this repeated on nearly every article on the topic without any qualification. It seems that in the days when these helmets were in regular use and given the locations and lack of modern technology available, water would have been scarce. I have trouble believing that soldiers would have wasted precious water pouring it over their helmets. The helmet works by convection (channeling air over the scalp) more than by evaporation. Evaporation would really only be effective if the wearer’s scalp were wet (instead of the exterior of the hat). I wear pith helmets in the Texas summer so I have some limited experience using them personally. Please cite the source for this assertion that pith helmets are “designed” to be soaked.
    Thanks.

     
    • Scheong says:

      I did a lot of research about it and every article I came across, and even one or two Youtube videos, all mention the soaking thing. I can’t imagine that that many people writing and making videos about pith-helmets could all be wrong. It works, that much I can tell you!

       
      • Mark says:

        I’ve never noticed a real difference. Soaking the helmet will cause the helmet to cool with evaporation. The goal is to keep your head cool; not the helmet. The interior harness (in most helmets) keeps the helmet off your head which would greatly diminish any benefit from having a wet helmet. In any case, it is possible (and common) for myths to be perpetually repeated until they are assumed to be fact. I wonder if soaking the helmet is one of those. I agree that a pith helmet can tolerate getting wet better than a straw or felt hat (e.g. Cowboy style hat), and I wonder if that fact didn’t simply morph into the assumption that pith helmets were intended to be soaked. In any case, I’d like to eventually find out where the story originated.
        I did enjoy the article in any case.

         

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *