History of American Football Helmets

The brightly colored, grilled American football helmet is an icon of the sport.

Has the helmet always been around and where did it come from?

Helmets Weren’t Always In Football

The helmet has not always been in use in football.

Nor is it even the earliest piece of protective equipment (check out our article on shoulder pads in American football).

In fact, like in hockey, the helmet was resisted by many players. The helmet was not mandatory in college football until 1939.

Before that, pictures of football games show a mix of helmeted and helmetless players.

The NFL didn’t make helmets mandatory until 1943.

The Invention Of The Football Helmet

The invention of the football helmet is generally credited to one of three different gentlemen, none of whom are the actual inventor.

Father of basketball

The first person commonly credited with the invention of the football helmet is James Naismith. He is also considered the father of basketball.

Naismith, the story goes, invented the first helmet in the 1880s. He wanted to protect his cauliflower ear while playing football for the YMCA.

However, a picture of Naismith wearing his “helmet” has been found. It just looks like a thick cloth wrapped around his ears. There’s a strap over the top of the head and under the chin to keep it in place.

This might protect the ears a little, but it certainly can’t be called a helmet.

Also, ear wraps had already been in use in football for a while at that point.

Father of aircraft carriers

The second person credited with the invention of football is Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves. He is better known as the father of the aircraft carrier.

Reeves played football for the Naval Academy in the 1890s. He was told by his doctor that one more blow to his head could cause “instant insanity or death”.

His response was to meet with a local cobbler to put together a padded leather cap to allow him to play his senior year.

This cap looked like a mushroom sitting on top of his head. It gave no protection to his ears nor to the base of the skull. Nor did it protect his forehead.

While he used it all season, it never caught on with other players. It certainly had no bearing on the design of any other early helmets.

George Barclay, Lafayette college

George Barclay was a player for Lafayette college in the mid-1890s. Barclay designed a “head harness” which is sometimes called the first helmet.

The young man is holding it in his hands in the picture below.

But like Naismith’s, it’s just an ear protector.

It consisted of two big pads that cover the ear, and three straps to hold them in place.

It looks almost exactly like modern wrestling headgear used for ear protection.

Thomas Larwood, Real Inventor Of The Football Helmet

The credit for the invention of the first real football helmet must go to the nearly unknown Thomas Larwood.

In 1894 Larwood was granted a patent for a head protector for football. He produced and sold his own product.

Larwood’s helmet was made of padded leather straps that circled the brow. They made a four-spoke cross over the crown of the head, and looped over the ears, fastening with a chin strap.

Spaulding And Mass Production

The Spaulding sporting goods company soon acquired rights to the patent. They put the helmet into larger production.

This is where the design became the forefather of all helmets that followed.

If Spaulding sounds familiar, they were also involved in the evolution of shoulder pads in American football.

Zuppke Helmets

One of the next big innovations occurred in 1917. Robert Zuppke, the coach of Michigan, came up with the new design.

A series of straps inside the helmet raised it slightly away from the head. This diffused impact and allowed for ventilation. 

Helmets with this distinctive pattern became known as Zuppke Helmets.

Winged Helmets And Other Designs

There were many other styles with descriptive names, including:

  • dog ears
  • executioners
  • tankers
  • flat tops
  • winged helmets

Most haven’t contributed to the design of modern helmets. One exception is the winged helmet.

Coaches at the University of Michigan designed a pattern of straps on leather helmets that evoked wings on the side.

This is still part of the look of the Michigan Wolverines.

Face Guards Before Helmets

Attempts to protect the nose and face were also around from the very early days. The original face masks were actually worn before helmets.

Starting in the 18880s, strange-looking contraptions made of leather, wire, or rubber were strapped directly to the player’s heads.

These were often held at the forehead by a strap and gripped at the bottom end with the teeth!

Football Helmets With Face Guards

Faceguards were soon added to the leather masks as well.

The early guards almost look medieval. They had full leather face coverings coming all or partly down the face with only eye holes to see. Sometimes there was a mouth hole to breathe through.

The first bar-style face mask was designed by a sporting goods store owner in Indiana in the mid-1930s. It was a bar covered by wire and attached to a leather helmet.

Bar grills did not come into common use until the 1950s, well into the plastic helmet era.

Plastic Helmets

The first plastic football helmets were made by Riddell in 1940.

They were a plastic shell with suspension straps inside to keep the helmet from touching the player’s head. The plastic helmets were cooler, could have the color and logos baked right onto the plastic, and were lighter.

However, the early Riddell helmets tended to shatter, sending sharp shards everywhere! They were banned in the NFL for a year because of this.

In 1955 the first modern face mask, a single bar, was attached to the Riddell helmets.

They have evolved throughout the 20th century and beyond. They moved first from one bar to two. And then, the design expanded to all the varieties that we see today.

Other Innovations In the 1950s

You may be surprised to learn that the 1950s saw another innovation in helmet technology. Radios in the quarterback’s helmet was first introduced in 1956.

But they were swiftly banned after a somewhat farcical yet amusing series of matches.

Check out our article on the history of radio helmets in the NFL.

What About Helmet Padding?

Padding in plastic helmets was initially suspension, then foam.

Later, inflatable bladders were put in the helmet to add to the cushioning. These helmets had a valve in the top that would be blown up with a ball pump before games!

Today, space-aged cushioning materials are inside of all helmets.

What About Concussions?

We are almost surely on the verge of another revolution in helmet design.

With concern growing about the long-term effects of concussions, companies are racing to come up with new and better shapes and designs.

The helmet we see in ten years may be very different from the ones we see today.

But here’s an interesting point. In a study done by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, modern football helmets were tested against several vintage leather helmets to see which did better in protecting against concussions.

The old leather helmets actually did a little better! Maybe what’s old will be new again.

What About Rugby?

We find it interesting to compare American football to its cousin, the sport of rugby.

Check out our article on whether rugby players wear helmets.