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History of American Football Helmets

Updated on January 10, 2015
Artist rendition of the first football game.  Image from the public domain.
Artist rendition of the first football game. Image from the public domain.
Image of the first types of head harness.  First appeared around the late 1890's
Image of the first types of head harness. First appeared around the late 1890's

The Head Harness

When it comes to American Football helmets, there is some argument among historians as to "who" invented the first football protective gear. There is a reference to a Navy Midshipman named Joseph Mason Reeves, later Admiral Reeves, going to an Annapolis shoemaker to craft head protection so he could continue playing without the fear of death or as his doctor of the time stated, "instant insanity."

The first documented head protection was made in 1896 at Lafayette College. A player there named George Barclay was so fearful that he would get cauliflower ear, had a blacksmith fashion a leather harness to protect his head and ears. Thus the first football harness.

Early leather helmet from around 1910.
Early leather helmet from around 1910.
Public domain image of Missouri University football team in 1910
Public domain image of Missouri University football team in 1910

Leather Helmets

 

Head protection was not mandatory equipment, early on. As a matter of fact, in the early days of football, wearing head protection usually resulted in attacks against a mans masculinity. These attacks usually resulted in a more physical response and the game continued to be brutal.

Padding increased around the thighs and shoulders, and head protection became increasingly popular. Full leather helmets were designed to protect the full head and left opening around the ears so that players could hear the play calling on the field.

In the 20's the helmets added more padding and strap harnesss inside to reduce impact energy.
In the 20's the helmets added more padding and strap harnesss inside to reduce impact energy.
In the early 30's the outer shell became harder and more impact resistant.
In the early 30's the outer shell became harder and more impact resistant.
Later in the 30's a face mask was added to reduce injury to the unproteced parts of the head.
Later in the 30's a face mask was added to reduce injury to the unproteced parts of the head.

Leather Football Helmets continued

 

Helmet designs improved over the years by adapting more padding and by adding a strap harness on the inside of the helmet to reduce the pressure of impact. In 1905, then president, Theodore Roosevelt demanded rules changes be made to the game because football injuries were getting out of hand. This led to the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association NCAA. One of the most important rule changes was the adoption of the forward pass. This rule opened up the field and reduced football injuries by a staggering 31%.

Even with the creation of the NCAA and a uniform set of rules, the head injuries continued. It wasn't until 1939 that the use of a football helmet was made mandatory in collegiate football and then it was made mandatory in 1943 for the professional teams of the NFL.

The Revolution Helmet
The Revolution Helmet

The Revolution

Rawlings and Spalding were some of the first manufacturers of leather football helmets. But in 1939, John T. Riddell patented the first plastic football helmet. The first plastic helmets had problems because they were brittle when hit head on. But years of research and development in energy absorbing technology has led the Riddell helmets to being the most widely used helmets in modern day football. The Riddells' Revolution helmet is the most advanced football helmet on the market.

Evolution of the football helmet to the Revolution helmet

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    • Ry4n6 profile image

      Ry4n6 

      6 years ago from Cheshire, England

      Have recently started watching American Football (am from UK). It is very interesting to hear about the history behind this fascinating sport.:)

    • Jake Robinson profile image

      Jake Robinson 

      7 years ago

      Wow, what a great hub, I am so glad I stumbled across it. I really love the hard leather Rams helmet. I really dig sports stories with historical perspective, and this was spot on.... Job well done!!

    • livewithrichard profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Bivins 

      7 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Yea, no kidding swedal. My grandfather would tell me stories of when he played before WW2, he said that the guys that wore protective equipment were teased, but he also said that every guy that didn't have equipment wished he had when he got hit...lol

    • swedal profile image

      swedal 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      Wow every time I see one of those leather helmets it makes me wonder. Considering how many concussions football players have today even with high tech helmets, what would happen if they were using those leather ones?

    • livewithrichard profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Bivins 

      9 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Yea, I can't imagine having to play in something like that. My grandfater told me stories about it when I found his old leather head harnass, it was pretty brutal on the guys that did wear them. The toughies that didn't wear them wanted to teack the others a lesson in toughness..

    • wavegirl22 profile image

      Shari 

      9 years ago from New York, NY

      interesting hub you have here livewithrichard . .though i must say when i saw the first picture it kinda reminded me of what they put on someone in the electric chair!

    • livewithrichard profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Bivins 

      9 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Thanks for visiting Erick. The technology is getting better all the time. Can you imagine what the game will look like a 50 years from now/

    • profile image

      Erick Smart 

      9 years ago

      Great research on your hub! The football helmet has come a long way and it still has a long way to go. So many guys are still getting head injuries so many companies are working on reducing these injuries with better designs.

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