Saturday, February 24, 2007

Model 1881 U.S. Cavalry Helmet

Our last piece of retrospection before we launch back into the 20th century.
This is the full-dress version of the 1881 cavalry enlisted man's helmet, resplendent in yellow braid, horsehair plume, and gilt eagle and shield. The helmet was worn by all branches, the plumed versions only by mounted branches, each with a distinctive arm-of-service colored plume. Infantry wore the helmet with spike only.Yours truly with an 1881 artilleryman's helmet. Note the scarlet plume and crossed cannon motif. An interesting side by side comparison to two American helmets; the 1881 as a European clone, and the M1, that most distinctive and widely copied helmet of the last half of the 20th century.

The same helmet fitted with the more understated spike atop the rosette.

Holey-moley...what's going on here? When did this republic of democrats get so highfalutin?

Here we have, in 1881, a relatively new nation, the United States of America, flexing its post-Civil War muscles and trying to assert itself on the world stage. Then, as now, emerging nations looked to established world powers for cues regarding military fashion. Paper soldiers of the Franco-Prussian era demonstrate what was fashionable among the world's great military powers, the trendsetters, so to speak.
The spiked and plumed helmets of Europe evidently resonated with Generals Nelson Miles, Monty Meigs, and others in the high command of the U.S. Army. As a result this rather garish and impractical confection of pressed felt, gilt, and horsehair was foisted upon the troops.

Needless to say, as were all things European, it was generally viewed with suspicion, hostility, and contempt by the rank and file of the U.S. Army.

Drink in the splendor, the pomp, and the circumstance. Whether the troops hated it or not, spiked or plumed, this helmet would see service for 21 years, finally falling by the wayside at the turn of the 20th century, not coincidentally following the American triumph in the Spanish-American War. This victory on the world stage began America's assertion as a newly arrived world power, and provided an opportunity to cast off the trappings of "old Europe" (as a recent American leader termed it).

The details:

The interior is very simple, just a standard hat band. As this helmet is not meant to provide any sort of ballistic protection, there is no liner or suspension of any sort. Heck, this thing doesn't even provide any protection from the elements! Some models had small "pinwheel" ventilators, though most, like this example, were without any ventilation at all. Despite the very light weight of these helmets, they must have been particularly uncomfortable on hot days.

Under the band is stamped the manufacturers mark, in this case the well known maker: W.H. Horstmann, with a contract date of 1899. This is a very late contract date. I acquired this helmet in unissued condition. By the time of its manufacture its day had been eclipsed.

Although Franco-Prussian in form and appearance, the motifs were strictly yankee-doodle-dandy. The large front plate provides us with several American icons; the eagle, the shield of the Union, and the arm-of-service crossed sabers. No mistaking the nationality here...but wait, there's more.

The side buttons also drive home the cavalry identity...

and the plume holder repeats the eagle motif.

Even the hooks for the "chicken-guts" braid are smaller Union shields.

And how 'bout all that gold braid? Included with the braid are tassels, ornamental knots, and these things, the so-called "waffles".

Joining us now is American icon, genocidal maniac, paragon of faulty judgment, and the original Arrow Shirt man, George Armstrong Custer. Here he is, modeling the "waffles" and braid from an earlier version of the 1881 helmet and uniform.

You go George!
(indian name: "crazy mustache")

1881 U.S. cavalry helmet, Horstmann mfg.
number MOAh1952.6
condition: outstanding, possibly unissued, original in all respects (save for the reproduction cord and "waffles"), with both plume and spike.
Purchased in 1987 ath the Plainfield Antique Mall in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Okay, that's a wrap for our pre-20th century foundation work. We've seen the fully functional Hoplite helmet and the completely ornamental U.S. 1881. From here on in it's all 20th century.

Next stop: The Pickelhaube of 1914

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Ok I tired to find an email addy but I guess this will have to do. Thank you for your site. I am a military miniaturist as well and have a question you may be able to help me with. I am looking for any sort of evidence or reference of a mounted kettle drummer in the US forces. regular, militia.. anything. I do have a photo of the 'third rifles' about 1940 but hoep to find something in the 1880s dress uniform era. I wonder if you might be able to point me in the right direction. anything would help.. a site, a book, an obscure demented historian?
thanks in advance
Patrick Scoggin