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 and comes from the Tagalog word salacsac (or Salaksak). Emilio Aguinaldo and the Philippine revolutionary military used to wear the pith helmet from the Spaniards alongside the straw hat and the native salakot during the Revolution in the Philippine-American War.
Originally made of pith with small peaks (bills) at the front and back, the helmet was covered by white cloth, often with a cloth band (or puggaree) around it, and small holes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 (indeed, another common Spanish name literally translates as cork helmet), although still covered with cloth and frequently still referred to as "pith" helmets.