Friday, October 23, 2015

Helmets Through History

Written by Daniel DelViscio

Do you wonder what football was like back in the day? Well here at the Delaware State University Archives we have a handful of sepia colored photographs displaying what the football team looked like. 

See those sweet leather hats? That was back when they didn’t have the newfangled polycarbonate helmets that protect you from concussions and probably sing you a nice lullaby when you go to bed at night. Helmets weren’t designated as mandatory protection until 1943 and it wasn’t unusual to see a mishmash of players on the field wearing different kinds of helmets or no helmets at all. The man who receives the most credit for inventing these first helmets is George Barclay in 1896.1 Back then it was known as the “head harness” and had three leather straps making it a tight fit.

Around 1915 helmets started looking more like they do today with the addition of more padding and flaps that covered the ears with holes for hearing. These were often referred to as Zuppke helmets after Robert Zuppke, the head football coach at the University of Illinois.2 In addition, straps of fabric were introduced in 1917 to better support the head and lessen the impact of a 250lb lineman folding you up like a taco.
Pictured to the right is a player on the 1955 football team shaking hands with the president Dr. Jerome H. Holland, but his helmet wouldn’t be developed until 1939, when the first plastic helmet prototype was created by John T. Riddell and they had some very big advantages over the old models.3 For one, they didn’t rot away like their leather predecessors and they were lighter as well as stronger. Unfortunately the helmets also had some big problems first and foremost being that they were too brittle and couldn’t handle direct blows often shattering on impact.3 So the helmet was made rounder so that collisions were more likely to be deflected. They looked something like the helmets in this 1951 Delaware State College vs. Bluefield State game.

The next big advance was the introduction of the BT-5 face mask in 1955, which at first was a rubber-coated steel tube formed into a single bar over the front of the helmet and over time has become a cage to protect the face of the players, and help referees add a new type of penalty flag to fling.4 Further improvements to the helmet came in the 1970s when some tinkering was done with various shock absorbing systems for inside the helmet like anti-freeze solvent and vinyl cushions. Over the years small alterations have been added for the safety of players and we hope the egg-head engineers keep coming up with new ways to keep our players safe, because we love football.

There you go, a little history to go with the homecoming celebration coming up. As a parting gift here is a picture of the homecoming football game played in 1954, go hornets!



1. Nelson, David M. The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who   Made the Game. 1st ed. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press ;, 1994.

2. Forthofer, Jason. "A History of Leather Football Helmets." 27 Apr. 2009. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

3. Stamp, Jimmy. "Leatherhead to Radio-head: The Evolution of the Football Helmet." October 1, 2012. Accessed October 22, 2015.

4. Gambini, Bert. "The Otto Graham Myth and the Evolution of the Face Mask ." May 20, 2014. Accessed October 22, 2015.

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