The Maltese Cross Draws on a History of War, Charity and Firefighting

The Maltese Cross Draws on a History of War, Charity and Firefighting

April 17, 2019

It’s the instantly recognizable symbol of the fire service.

You’ll see it on our helmets and our trucks. It’s on our badges and our gear. And you don’t have to look far to find a firefighter with the symbol tattooed on their body. It’s a point of pride and a permanent reminder of the service and sacrifices the job requires.

It’s the Maltese Cross.

You can also wear the Maltese Cross when you order one of our popular T-shirts featuring this eye-catching symbol, highlighted by eight distinct points representing loyalty, gallantry, observation, tact, perseverance, sympathy, explicitness and dexterity.

So what is the Maltese Cross and how did it come to be associated with the fire service? It’s an incredible story, spanning centuries and weaving in timeless themes of war and bravery, charity and humanity.

And, of course, fire.


The Maltese Cross and the Design That Saved Lives

The original symbol is believed to have first appeared during the crusades after a group of monks was forced to take up arms. These monks set up hospitals in Jerusalem so they could tend to sick and wounded pilgrims passing through on their way to the Holy Lands, but after personally escorting the pilgrims through dangerous Syrian territories, they eventually became an armed military order known as the Knights Hospitallers (also the Order of St. John).

Every bit as fierce as the feared Knights Templars, the Knights Hospitallers eventually settled in the Maltese islands in the mid-sixteenth century. By this time, the knights had adopted the cross as a means to recognize — and prevent them from mistakenly attacking — their brethren on the battlefield.

The story grew during a legendary battle between the Knights Hospitallers and a group of nomads in the desert between Syria and Arabia. These nomads, called the Saracens, doused the knights with naphtha and other highly flammable liquids. When the knights were covered in the liquid, the Saracens then lit them on fire.

This new tactic of war proved effective and deadly, but the Knights adapted, fighting the flames in a heroic effort to save and protect their comrades.

They became firefighters.


Why Did the Fire Service Adopt the Maltese Cross?

The first known connection between the Maltese Cross and the fire service appeared in New York in 1865 when the FDNY began using the symbol on its badges, according to Gary R. Urbanowicz in his book “Badges of the Bravest: A Pictorial History of Fire Departments in New York City.”

Urbanowicz finds no record of the reason behind the adoption of the Maltese Cross, but many speculate that the connection came about because of those eight virtues shared by the knights and the fire service.

Now it has become a fire department tradition, often decorated with axes, ladders, hydrants and other tools of the firefighter trade. It’s a universal sign of dignity, honor and courage for the countless men and women around the world who dedicate their lives to the fire service.


Wear Your Maltese Cross T-Shirt with Pride

So if you’re new to Fire Dept. Coffee or if you’re a longtime supporter stopping back in for your favorite premium roasted-to-order blends or top-quality mugs, check out our new Maltese Cross T-shirts. Get one for yourself or for the firefighters you know will love to wear it.

When you see someone wearing that familiar cross, you see a brother or sister, someone who will fight alongside you with dignity and honor, willing to stand in harm’s way to help those in need.



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