The early 20th century was the deadliest period in American mining history. Spurred by a growing labor movement and catastrophic mining accidents that killed hundreds of men per incident – Monongah (WV) Mine Disaster in 1907, Cherry Mine (IL) Mine Disaster in 1909, and many more – the Bureau of Mines was established in 1910 in part to monitor and enforce worker safety underground.
Prior to the 1920s, miners wore soft cloth caps made of canvas with a leather brim and had a bracket that held an oil or carbide light. The cloth cap offered little safety protection and functioned primarily as a hands-free mount for a light. If the employer did not provide a hat, the men probably wore their own hats and caps underground, if they wore one at all.
The first hard hat was invented by Edward W. Bullard and was modeled on the service helmet he wore during World War I. Bullard’s father founded and operated a mining supply company in San Francisco, California. Bullard’s “hard-boiled hat” was made of steamed canvas, glue and black paint. Like a cloth cap, it held a bracket for a light source but was able to withstand bumps, knocks, and impacts to the head. The design took off once the U. S. Navy commissioned him to create hard-boiled safety caps to be used in shipyards.
In 1930, the Mining Safety Appliance Co. manufactured its first safety helmet using Bakelite, a plastic- like synthetic resin used for everything from hairbrushes and jewelry to kitchenware and game pieces. When carbide lights gave way to battery powered lights, electric lamps could be attached to the same brackets, a battery pack worn on the hip, with a clamp at the shoulder to keep the electric cord out of the miner’s way. LED lights have now replaced battery lights.
Hard hats did not immediately replace soft caps and they continued to be used into the 1930s and 1940s, probably a matter of personal preference. Manufactured with a limit life span, twenty-first century mining hats are counted as wearable safety gear and must meet strict guidelines regarding impact resistance, electrical insulation, and flame resistance. The newest hard hats can even assess exposure to dust, helping to prevent lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust. They have gone from passive protection devices to active auditing equipment.
Images from the World Museum of Mining Photo Archives and may not be reproduced without permission. Please contact the World Museum of Mining to order copies of these or any images in our collection – 406-723-7211 or [email protected]
Photo #00547: A mine crew, wearing their own hats, in an unidentified underground mine station. Circa 1900
Photo #01215: Two muckers working at the Granite Mountain Mine wearing soft hats with carbide lights. Circa 1915
Photo #00889: Two unidentified miners wearing hard leather hats and drilling holes to prepare for blasting. Circa 1940
Photo #00373: Unidentified miners of the Mountain Con Mine waiting to go underground. Circa 1950.