"Advice. And stuff."
the pith helmet

     I'm relatively intelligent. And I know some pretty smart people too. So I figure that it's about time that I share that intelligence with the rest of the world. Do you have a question? Sure you do! So ask it here!

I may, or may not, know what I'm talking about. I'm not a therapist. I'm not even really a writer. In real life, face to face, some of what I've written here might have been accompanied by a smirk or wild hand gestures. Keep it in mind.

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Published on 07/17/2001

Keith asks:
Okay, this question is for real... I've got a pith helmet that I like to wear to the beach, but can't figure out which way is forward. Mine, like the photo on your website, has a leather strap across the rim at on end -- is that the end to be worn in front or what? I have a theory that maybe the leather strap is to be worn behind because (possible?) it serves to hold fast a handkerchief that would protect the neck from sunburn.

I do wonder about your need to justify this question to me as something of a "real" question. This one ranks just behind the zero degrees Kelvin question that was asked by a woman and her boyfriend (who should have been busy having sex instead of thinking about physics) in terms of the amount of research that needed to be done. If I am simply to serve as a reference guide then I might as well just pack it in and hand all of my clients off to the Good Doctor. There must be better things for me to be doing with my time.

But I like you Keith. I like your inquisitive nature, and I like the fact that you actually put some real thought into this question. You even have a theory!

Unfortunately, that theory is wrong.

First of all, I think it would look really silly for the handkerchief to be hanging down from on top of the helmet, for that would destroy the entire helmet aesthetic. You would lose the brim, and what good would that be? Besides, you really should just tuck the handkerchief under the helmet itself, first laying it down on your head to serve the dual purpose of absorbing the sweat from your head and neck and also to serve to protect the neck (the pith helmet was most popularized before the days of SPF 30 sunscreen -- Dr. Livingstone did NOT march into the jungle with a case of sun block).

Secondly, my extensive research led me to the web site of the African Trading Company. With experience all the way back to 1997, I can think of nobody else who might serve as an authority on Pith Helmet protocol. They even have an entire section dedicated to the pith helmet, including a brief history AND the following photograph (which I have copied here without permission):

As you can see, our model is wearing her helmet with the band facing forward. I am taking their word for it, and I feel that you should too.

African Trading Company's pith helmet page

which-way-forward dilemmas are commonplace in several kinds of
headgear, not only in pith helmets. a quick glance at your average
bowler, for example, yields no easily discernable front or back. a closer
look, however, shows a small label in the headband which is placed
at the back of the head.

good luck.
Posted by the urban matador on 08-02-2001 14:41

Definitely at the front. Usually straps are too short to go to the rear, especially on the British Foreign Issue, which has a brim slightly longer in the rear. A much better design IMHO.
The Trading Company IS a good sight-I am trying to order a new helmet as we speak.
Posted by Cal on 09-06-2001 00:16

re: urban matador comment. You're going to trust the word of a man who used to wear a FORK behind his ear?
Posted by Danielle on 09-11-2001 10:05

great site, i have an 8 1/8 head to put under a pith helmet, and many other hats, a fedora in particular.
To further define the pitts of the negative extents you have experienced as "answer cat", here is a separate reality for the "kelvin" rhetoric.

zero degrees kelvin might best be described as...the temperature of the theoretictcal "black body", which is the basis of all color illumination. that non-existent item (black body) provides the baseline of all light quantization, in the various fields that require such an abstract to define and refine their artistic medium.

no worries a hat order will occur, in time..

"8 1/8 head" from Texas
Posted by John Mathis on 10-09-2001 21:34

Call me a geek, but I really wish the pith helmet would come back into fashion. The design is clever, and much more practical than most other kinds of tropical headdress (caps and bush hats, for instance).

The intent of any kind of tropical headgear is, of course, to keep the sun off the head and face and allow fresh air to circulate around the head, so that the user remains relatively cool. Caps and bush hats are good at keeping the sun off the head and face, but the heat of the sun is still transferred to the head by the fact that the cloth of the hat is next to the skin. Plus, these hats don't always do a good job of circulating the air underneath the hat because the ventilation is poor.

By contrast, the pith helmet is designed to put a space between the hat and the head, to minimize heat transferrance and to allow air to freely circulate around the top and sides of the head. That's why the pith helmet headband is not flush with the sides of the helmet. The purpose of the "button" at the top of the helmet is to cover a ventilation hole, and some helmets also have vent holes on the sides. Most pith helmets have a wide brim that flares out to protect the face and sides of the head. And finally, the helmets are covered in fabric so that the user can dip the helmet into streams or ponds and wear it "wet" -- the evaporation of the water will cool the head. The only negative things about the pith helmet are that some of them are heavy, and none of them can be folded up and tucked into your luggage like a soft cap can.

In my opinion, of the "modern" (20th century) pith helmet styles, the German Afrika Korps pith helmet from WW2 is the best-looking design. It has a classic appearance that lacks the exaggerated features of many of the other styles. The British had several designs, and their "Universal Model" helmet from the teens is not a bad aesthetic choice, either. The South African style from WW2 is hideous, as are most of the Italian ones. The US armed forces used the same style of pith helmet from WW2 until Vietnam, and it's OK. It's just "OK" (but not great) for several reasons. For one thing, the brim, in my opinion, is too broad, and looks a little silly when compared to the German and British styles. Also, the details of the US helmet, like the ventilation cap on top and the puggaree wrapped around the sides, are pressed into the fibre and are not "real." So to me, the US helmets are like a cheap version of the classic European styles. Nevertheless, American pith helmets from the Vietnam era are still widely available and reasonably priced.

I know some of this stuff because I lived in Egypt for five years. I usually wore a cap with a neckflap, only because my wife wouldn't walk around with me in public while I was wearing my US Army surplus pith helmet. And this, ultimately, is why I think pith helmets are not popular -- they are associated with colonialism. Which is too bad, really, because they are very good at what they are supposed to do, which is to keep the wearer cool.

My final comment is that the chinstrap is always worn in front, but many women would wear a scarf tied around the top of the helmet and under the chin, in lieu of the chinstrap. You don't see men wearing their helmets with the chinstrap under the chin -- it is almost always worn over the front brim.

Posted by Kenny on 10-12-2001 11:53

You blokes have no idea....the Pith in 'Pith' helmet comes from the lispe, meaning urine. If someone needs a piss, and in the desert, trees are not commonplace and are very hard to find, you find that whilst searching for such an object to urinate behind is quite difficult and can be quite time consuming. This caused profuse sweating, the eyes to bulge and ones own ability to verbally communicate becomes disruptive and a lispe occurs. Henceforth, the pith helmet is for pithing in and one should not share needles or helmets. If any futher information is required, please get back to me and I will be more than happy to elaborate.
Yours sincerely, Gary Traynor, Moruya Australia
Posted by Gary TRAYNOR on 10-14-2001 00:10

my pith helmet differs in that it has a six hole metal ventilator at the crown. it was said to have been the property of my great uncle norman, from the boer war?? has the name of a h.m.c.s. ship on the internal band. what do i have???
Posted by j.e.stewart on 11-22-2001 20:17

As one of the last pioneer missionaries, my dad wore a helmet for 46 years in Africa and the strap is worn in the front. That way, if it gets windy you can pull it down to be a chin strap.
Posted by Eva Mae on 02-15-2002 09:07

Pith Helmets are indeed lovely in form and effective in function! I work at an archaeological dig site in Syria, and I bring my helmet every year. I am the project's artist and each day must spend hours in direct summer sunlight drawing what the excavators have uncovered, and a pith helmet, especially a dampened one, is often all that stands between my sanity and madness. I have tried other hats in the past and find them uncomfortable and, perhaps worse, unflattering!
A lot of people seem to think a pith helmet is much heavier and difficult to carry than one of those floopy, foolish "bush hats", but I find this is not so. A pith helmet is very light, and I find it's relative rigidness to be an advantage, since while in transport the helmet can be placed into a bag in such a way as to protect fragile objects.
Also, no Syrian has every object to my helmet on the grounds that it reminds them of colonialism, and the fact is most of them love it and like their picture taken with it! How could any human dislike such a handsome piece of headgear?
I wear my helmet chin strap forwards, and do indeed use the chin strap. I have no idea what where the author of the above post got the notion men do not use the chin strap. If it's windy are we supposed to walk around with our hands on our heads? Or do we only wear our pith helmets indoors? I do, however, agree that the Germans have made the best-looking of all pith helmets. It's too bad about the cause they served, but they really were well-designed, and it would be nice if someone would copy them.

Wonderful web site,

Posted by Nedley Nealbum on 05-09-2002 15:17

The strap is worn at the front of the helmet.
As to the best looking pith helmet,in terms of style i have to disagree on the Afrika Corps helmet and say that it has to be the WW1 British Wolseley helmet.
Posted by IAN on 11-29-2003 15:48

Subsequent to my earlier comment, I've discovered some companies that sell reproduction German and British pith helmets.
The Village Hat Shop sells the Wolseley pith helmet for $42.00 at:
They also sell late-19th century British reproductions and other styles of pith helmets.
A place called Lost Battalions sells a reproduction German helmet for a whopping $175.00 at:
I haven't bought either of them, so I don't know how well they are made.

Posted by Kenny on 01-22-2004 17:27

Yet more stuff on pith helmets, how amusing !!!

My dear sirs and ladies, especially those in the collonies, the wosely helmet is no match in style with the proper shaped and proportioned foreign service helmet !! That one is simply a classic.

It may interest or amuse you to know that the British Police and constabularies still wear helmets that are the same shape as the foreign service helmet.

Indeed the first white foreign service helmet worn by the British in India by East India Company army officers had a ridge over the top, and this design although in black is known as a Coxcombe helmet, and is worn by a number of police forces in the UK.

The Isle of Man Constabulary still wear a white helmet during the summer months and this has a spike with a ball on top, known radically enough as a BALL TOP helmet.

It may also interest (or not, who knows), that there are two designs of British foreign service helmet. One has a pointed peak at the front, the other rounded. These were white (pipe clayed) and the ones worn towards the end of the 19th century has Khaki covers, with regimental flashes on the side, and sun/neck guards at the back.

One cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers wore this design in Africa, but with an unusual quilted canopy all the way round, and turned up at the front so he could see the Dervishes I assume !!

The chin strap was indeed worn over the front peak, when not in use, or pushed up inside the helmet as Bobbies still do today. Incidentally, modern British Police helmets are made of ABS plastic but finished the traditional way, and only the City of London Police (not to be confused with the Metropolitan Police) still wear cork helmets with helmet plates that havnt changed in design from the original Victorian ones.

Chin chin once again and (Howay the toon)!!!!
Posted by Geordie on 09-08-2004 15:03

I'm writing from Chile,South America,and i have a cork helmet,iwear it every day on summer,it was made in 1935,in this place the pith/cork hats are not so known , because the people likes and use baseball caps (arghhhh¡),i think that there's not something better that the cork hat to stop the hazardous sun of Chile,due the poor ozone shield that exist on this part of the world, unfortunatelly nobody sells this kind of hats in Chile, known in spanish as "cucalon", or "salakoff", so when i use it , people tells to me, " hi,Daktari¡", or "are you coming from safari?", but i don't care, i 'm proud of my hat.
Posted by Claudio Rollano Conde on 12-01-2004 17:12

I like your pic of the lady wearing a pith helmet and want to use it in an editorial in our local paper. I can't get to the web site it came from - do you think there would be a pronblem with me using this picture?
Posted by Sharon on 04-15-2005 07:08

The pith helmet is really a colonial relic, still dripping with symbolism. If you get yourself one, and wish to use it, please do not go beyond Florida, or perhaps bermuda, where it appears to still be in vogue. If you redesign it (and you could) it might be acceptable in those warm climes and not attract umbrague. The Vietnamese variant, for example, might be acceptable or another kind of colourful head gear.
Posted by Emil on 04-22-2005 17:31

I would be very interested in learning more about the pith helmet and its uses. Does anyone know of any books on the topic? Did the foreign service or militaries put out a "users manual?" In desert regions where the hat was worn it could get very cold at night. Was the PH adaptable in some way to be a "warm" hat as well? Is the use of cork superior to the use of pith? Etc. Anyone who might point me in the right direction would be appreciated.
Posted by Malcolm on 07-07-2005 15:56

On the comment made a few years back now on the origin of the name "Pith". The submitter said that us "blokes" were ignorant as to the true meaning of the word "pith". He said that it came from a lisp of the word "piss" (we are not in Madrid now gentlemen) as though one was supposed to actually pee in the hat. Although I can see where this would be useful in dire curcumstances (ie. no water available), it's really quite a silly suggestion. A pith helmet is designed to be submerged for a period in water. This allows the "pith" (cork quite often) that the helmet is made from to absorb the fluid and therefore create a very nice evaporative cooling unit on your head. If I were travelling through the Transvaal or the Sudan the last thing I would want running off of my helmet and into my eyes would be uric acid. It's bad enough to have salt from your own sweat doing this without adding an acid to the mix. Plus the smell, hygiene, and destructive qualities of human urine. "Pith" has only one real meaning. It's a lightweight, cellular, wooden substance found in many plants and trees. It is rigid, but not strong generally. The only common use for human urine (any urine for that matter) in the clothing/ textile industry is for setting dye or curing leather. This pratice was common at one point in Europe and is still used in some African and Asian textile manufacturing today. The "Pith" in pith helmet therefore has only one logical meaning. It's what the hat is made of. Learn the English language and leave the lisping to the Spaniards.
Posted by Patrick on 08-10-2006 16:14

Hessen Antique sells some very nice reproductions of the Afrikakorps Pith helmet. They are well made and a great pith helmet for only $70.00.
Posted by Rick Squeri on 10-20-2006 13:00

For those interested in British Colonial history, perhaps a visit to British Colonial Outfitters will be of interest at the following link, http://www.spreadshirt.net/shop.php?sid=264840
Posted by Pax.Britannica on 07-12-2007 21:59

I just accidentally ran across this blog while looking for a replacement for the pith helmet that was pinched off the back seat of my car a few months ago. It was one of the very fine "Bombay Bowlers" with a strap across the top as well as a chin strap across the brim, and was made in India. The puggaree had seven perfectly executed folds. I didn't realize what a fine hat it was until recently and am having trouble replacing it without spending a fortune.

A good pith helmet is invaluable for activities in the hot sun. I have always mowed my lawn wearing it, and the free circulation of air around my semi-bald head has been a life saver. It was lightweight and very comfortable. I couldn't care less what the neighbors thought. I will pay whatever it takes to replace it with another one of good quality. A word of caution. Stay away from the cheap VietNamese imitations that use a plastic headband with a velcro sizing strip. Before you buy, make sure you can see a photo of the headband suspension from an underside view, especially if you have a large head. The head and headband should stand well away from the shell when being worn. The Victorian "Zulu" styles look sharp for reenactments but they are usually too small for an average sized head, which defeats their purpose if you intend to wear one as serious hot weather headgear. A small headband that is in contact with the shell all the way around doesn't permit circulation around the rim of the head and above the crown.

In my opinion the German, French, Brit colonial, or safari styles are the best for both looks and cooling efficiency. The US style doesn't have a functiional vent cap on top to allow warmed air to escape.

Who cares about any Nazi or Brit colonial PC implications? That was more than 60 years ago in a previous century. Uptight PC leftist libs need to chill out and get a life.

Get a hat that functions best and wear it.
Posted by Al Thompson on 09-01-2007 13:50

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