Sunday, November 10, 2019

I’ll Just Attach This Flame To My Canvas Hat – Evolution of Mining Hard Hats

By Suzanne Norquist
Imagine working in an underground mine day after day with only a canvas cap to protect your head. The purpose of the cap was to carry a light, not to save your noggin.

On a recent visit to the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center, I noticed a display of miner’s caps.

First in line was a felt hat, like those worn at home. A candle could be attached to provide light. When the miner reached his destination, he would stick the candle holder into a crack in the rocks or into a piece of wood.

I can’t even imagine wearing an open flame attached to a cloth (or even leather) hat. A later invention was the teapot lamp. The pot contained fuel, and a wick came through the spout. Those look positively frightening.

Many mines were very wet, with water dripping from the sides and ceiling. In those environments, a worker could treat a canvas cap with a black water repellant compound. Still no protection from the occasional falling rock.

In fact, from 1850 until around 1915, miner’s headgear consisted of cloth or canvas hats with leather brims and lamp brackets.

Why didn’t underground miners think to protect their heads with some kind of helmet? After all, soldiers' helmets have existed for centuries. Look at the knights in their armor . . . or the Roman centurions.

The bulky, uncomfortable helmets designed to protect against swords and arrows never made their way into industrial use. In fact, with the invention of rifles, they fell out of favor in militaries as well. What good were they if they couldn’t stop a bullet?

In World War I, infantry soldiers started wearing protective helmets again. The Brodie helmet could stop flying shrapnel and debris, if not a bullet.

In 1919, the Brodie helmet inspired the Bullard mining supply company to create the Hard Boiled hat out of steamed canvas, glue, a leather brim, and black paint. The name comes from the steaming process. These hats were introduced in mines and navy shipyards.

Around this same time, carbide lamps were invented, eliminating the need for an open flame light source. You can see it in the picture above.

Aluminum became a standard for hard hats around 1938, and fiberglass came into use in the 1940s.

In modern times, hard hats come in a variety of colors, whose meanings are site-specific. When my husband started his mining career in an underground coal mine, he was a “green hat,” meaning he was the new guy.

It’s hard to imagine that up until a century ago, a miner wore a canvas cap with an open flame attached to it. But I suppose kids who didn’t grow up in the 1970s can’t imagine riding bicycles without helmets either.


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
For a Free Preview, click here:


  1. Great post! You're right-wearing an open flame would have been positively frightening, but then I'm claustrophobic, so I can't imagine working in a mine even with a hard hat on my head! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you. I'm claustrophobic too. And my husband works in a mine.

  2. Very interesting. I surely can't understand why they didn't use metal; it's not like they didn't have access to metals. Suits of armor, like you said! Thanks for the post!

  3. Fascinating post, Suzanne. Yeah - no candle-hat for me either.