The pith helmet (also known as the safari helmet, sun helmet, topee, sola topee, salacot or topi ) is a lightweight cloth-covered helmet made of cork or pith, typically pith from the sola, Aeschynomene aspera, an Indian swamp plant, or A. paludosa, or a similar plant. Designed to shade the wearer's head and face from the sun, pith helmets were often worn by people of European origin in the tropics, but have also been used in other contexts
Crude forms of pith helmets had existed as early as the 1840s, but it was around 1870 that the pith helmet became popular with military personnel in Europe's tropical colonies. The Franco-Prussian War had popularized the German Pickelhaube, which may have influenced the distinctive design of the pith helmet. Such developments may have merged with a traditional design from the Philippines, the salakot. The alternative name salacot (also written salakhoff) appears frequently in Spanish and French sources; it comes from the Tagalog word salacsac (or Salaksak). During the Revolution in the Philippine-American War, Emilio Aguinaldo and the Philippine revolutionary military used to wear the pith helmet borrowed from the Spaniards alongside the straw hat and the native salakot.
Originally made of pith with small peaks or "bills" at the front and back, the helmet was covered by white cloth, often with a cloth band (or puggaree) around it, and small holes for ventilation. Military versions often had metal insignia on the front and could be decorated with a brass spike or ball-shaped finial. The chinstrap could be in leather or brass chain, depending on the occasion. The base material later became the more durable cork, although still covered with cloth and frequently still referred to as "pith" helmet.
The earliest appearance of sun helmets made of pith occurred in India during the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s. Adopted more widely during the Indian Mutiny of 1857–59, they were generally worn by British troops serving in the Ashanti War of 1873, the Zulu War of 1878–79 and subsequent campaigns in India, Burma, Egypt and South Africa. This distinctively shaped headwear came to be known as the Foreign Service helmet.
During the Anglo-Zulu War, British troops dyed their white pith helmets with tea, mud or other makeshift means of camouflage. Subsequently khaki-coloured pith helmets became standard issue for active tropical service.
While this form of headgear is particularly associated with both the British and the French empires, all European colonial powers used versions of it during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The French tropical helmet was first authorised for white colonial troops in 1878. The Dutch wore the helmet during the entire Aceh War (1873–1914) and the United States Army adopted it during the 1880s for use by soldiers serving in the intensely sunny climate of the Southwest United States. It was also worn by the North-West Mounted Police in policing North-West Canada, 1873 through 1874 to the North-West Rebellion and even before the Stetson in the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.
European officers commanding locally recruited indigenous troops, as well as civilian officials in African and Asian colonial territories, used the pith helmet. White troops serving in the tropics usually wore pith helmets; although on active service they sometimes used such alternatives as the wide-brimmed slouch hats, which were worn by US troops in the Philippines and by British Empire forces in the later stages of the Boer War.
At the same time, the military adopted a broadly similar helmet, of dark blue cloth over cork and incorporating a bronze spike, for wear in non-tropical areas. This helmet led to the retirement of the shako headdress. While not considered a true "pith helmet" this headdress did resemble its tropical counterpart and during the 1890s a white version which could be worn in both the United Kingdom and India was experimentally issued to some British regiments. Modeled on the German Pickelhaube, the British Army adopted this headgear (which they called the "Home Service Helmet") in 1878. Most British line infantry, artillery (with ball rather than spike) and engineers wore the helmet until 1902, when khaki Service Dress was introduced. With the general adoption of khaki for field dress in 1903, the helmet became purely a full dress item, being worn as such until 1914.
The Home Service Helmet is still worn by some British Army bands or Corps of Drums on ceremonial occasions today. It is closely related to the custodian helmet worn by a number of police forces in England and Wales.
The US Army wore blue cloth helmets of the same pattern as the British model from 1881 to 1901 as part of their full dress uniform. The version worn by cavalry and mounted artillery included plumes and cords in the colors (yellow or red) of their respective branches of service.
Black helmets of a similar shape were also part of the uniform of the Victoria Police during the late 19th century. It may have been worn by some of the police involved in the shootout with the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, although contemporary sketches show kepis being worn.
Pith helmets were widely worn during World War I by British, Belgian, French, Austrian-Hungarian and German troops fighting in the Middle East and Africa.
Helmets of this style (but without true pith construction) were used as late as World War II by Japanese, European and American military personnel in hot climates. Included in this category are the sun helmets worn in Ethiopia by Italian troops, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, Union Defence Force, and Germany's Afrika Korps, as well as similar helmets used to a more limited extent by U.S. and Japanese forces in the Pacific Theater.
Pith helmets abandoned by retreating Italian forces during the North African campaign.
During the 1930s the locally recruited forces maintained in the Philippines, (consisting of the army and a gendarmerie), used sun helmets. The Axis Second Philippine Republic's military, known as the Bureau of Constabulary, as well as guerrilla groups in the Philippines also wore this headdress.
The Ethiopian Imperial Guard retained pith helmets as a distinctive part of their uniform until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. Imperial Guard units serving in the Korean War often wore these helmets when not in actual combat.
The British Army formally abolished the tropical helmet in 1948.