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MODEL 1881 OFFICER’S DRESS HELMET – AN ATTRACTIVE SPECIMEN IN EXCELLENT CONDITION:  This Model 1881 Officer’s Dress Helmet is a particularly nice specimen and having survived intact, it presents some interesting features related to the officer who wore it.   

As a basis from which to begin, it is important to acknowledge that while there were published uniform regulations that applied to officers as well as the enlisted ranks, unlike the standard issue of uniforms and equipment the troops received directly from the army, the officers were required to purchase their uniforms on the civilian market.  As the officers were spending their own money, they certainly had a certain amount of control over what they chose to wear.  While they remained within the general spirit of the uniform regulations, surviving examples of officers’ uniforms and period photographs demonstrate that the officers were allowed to exercise a certain amount of discretion when selecting various pieces of uniforming, trim and insignia.  In reality, the discretionary latitude of their selections was more often governed by the depth of their wallets rather than their sense of style.  And too, the difference in environments between the halls of the government buildings in Washington City versus the rough buildings and parade grounds of the frontier posts compelled an element of practicality in their choices as well.  As a result, it is not uncommon to find components of officers’ uniforms that deviate from the published uniform regulations of the day.  Such is the case to some degree with this helmet.  

The eagle plate on this helmet is the correct two-piece infantry officer’s pattern – differing from the single piece enlisted man’s plate, a separate piece consisting of the shield and crossed rifles is applied to the eagle resulting in a higher relief.  The German silver numeral 2 indicates the officer was assigned to the 2ND Infantry Regiment.  If an infantry officer was adhering to the strict detail of the regulations, and he held a field grade rank – major, lieutenant colonel or colonel, his helmet would be fitted with a white buffalo tail hair plume and chest cords, or as a company grade officer – second and first lieutenant or captain, his helmet would be crowned with a spike without the cords.   

In 1881, General Sherman dictated that regimental staff officers, regardless of rank, would wear the mounted helmets with plumes and chest cords.  This directive authorized junior officers serving as the regimental adjutant, quartermaster or commissary officer to wear the same helmet fittings as the field grade officers.  While this order was specifically directed to regimental staff officers – that is, officers of that particular arm of the service, i.e. artillery, cavalry and infantry who were assigned staff roles as a collateral duty - and did not include members of the General Staff, the order certainly nudged open the stable gate so to speak, for general staff officers serving with the regiments.  Specifically, as it applies to this helmet, a surgeon serving with a particular regiment on the frontier.   

This helmet, while complete with all of the proper metal insignia and gilt cords appropriate for a field grade officer of infantry, features a black horse hair plume rather than the white buffalo hair plume.  The explanation for this deviation from the regulations may be explained by the presence of a paper tag glued to the inside of the helmet crown bearing the inscription, “Surgeon”.   Apparently the officer who wore this helmet was the regimental surgeon.   

As a member of the Medical Department he was considered an officer of the General Staff.  Uniform regulations during this period called for General Staff officers to wear a chapeau, the ornate fore and aft peaked hat, decorated with a black feather plume.   

The regulations notwithstanding, that a surgeon serving with a regiment, particularly on a solitary post, would develop a close affinity and loyalty for the unit and his fellow officers, and wishing to dress and present himself in the style of the other officers, would choose – probably with the full approval of the regimental commanding officer – to wear  a plumed helmet on dress occasions rather than the chapeau is just not that far fetched.  In keeping with the black color of the feather plume worn on the chapeau, the surgeon apparently obtained a black hair plume to complete his helmet.  

The regiments’ commanding officers had considerable discretion, and allowing his surgeon to wear a plumed helmet would certainly fall within his authority.  Numerous other examples of officers deviating from the uniform regulations are well documented – i.e. the known examples of 1880 white summer helmets to which officers transferred all of the furniture from the dark blue helmet.  Certainly not regulation, and in fact a practice specifically proscribed, however the practice continued for years with more than a little popularity, and obviously with the blessing of the COs. 

I understand there are nay-sayers who would dismiss this helmet as an amalgamation of parts solely because the use of a black hair plume is not something covered in the regulations for officers during this period.  To dismiss the helmet so quickly ignores that the helmet is correct in every other detail, that the components all appear to have been together and worn as a unit for a very long time, and the presence of the paper tag inscribed “surgeon” inside the crown.  That it is unique I will not argue, however I do believe it presents exactly as this regimental surgeon wore it.   

This specimen of the Model 1881 Officer’s Dress Helmet is in excellent condition.  It is complete with all of the original correct higher quality trimmings expected to be found on officer’s helmets, to include the plume holder, socket base, side buttons with the proper integral chin chain hooks, rings, the proper two-piece eagle plate, linked chin chain, and of course a very nice helmet body.  

The body of the helmet is covered in black cloth and has survived in full form with no crushing, breakage, loss of finish or other damage.  The inside surface of the sweat band retains a legible maker’s embossed label – “BENT & BUSH, BOSTON”, a well known source for military headgear.    

The original plume and set of cords on this helmet are in excellent condition.  The plume falls gracefully over the helmet with no tangles.  The gilt cords are complete on the helmet and still retain the majority of their bright gilt color with only minor tarnishing.  The chin chain is full length and still retains the original black cloth backing sewn to the chain.     

This is a very attractive example of a relatively scarce Model 1881 Officer’s Dress Helmet of a quality seldom encountered on today’s market and it is one that would be a true show piece in your collection.  (0611)  $2550



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