While we tend to think of football helmets as standard gear now, it wasn’t always that way. Even though helmets failed to become mandatory until after World War II, primitive helmets could be spotted on playing fields as far back as the late 1890s and early 1900s. One of the first noted appearances of football headgear occurred in 1896, when Lafayette College halfback George Barclay began using earpieces held together with leather harness straps to protect his ears. Barclay’s crude attempt at protecting his ears, was likely the inspiration for some of the earliest versions of helmets, called “head harnesses,” which were primarily designed to cover the ears and built out of soft leather. The original head harnesses covered the ear completely and were criticized for making communication on the playing field difficult. The next incarnation of the helmet, appearing around 1915, incorporated holes in the earflaps to allow better on field communication and included a padded leather “cap” that offered more protection of the skull. By 1917, the next great innovation arrived and helmets begin to feature some suspension rather than resting directly on the skull, which allowed better absorbing and distribution of impact, as well as increased ventilation.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, makers began to utilize harder leathers and incorporate cushioning for greater protection. During this time, the shape of helmets began to evolve toward more of a teardrop or spherical shape which allowed the impact of a blow to slide to one side or the other rather than being absorbed head-on.
The biggest advancement of helmet innovation, however, came in 1939, when the first plastic football helmet was introduced by the John T. Riddell Company of Chicago. The new helmets proved to be stronger, lighter, and more durable than their leather counterparts. Along with producing the first plastic helmets, Riddell is credited with creating the first plastic face mask and adjusting the placement of the helmet strap moving it from the throat to the chin.
Despite its strengths, the plastic helmet also had major pitfalls which slowed its acceptance by the general football community. In head on collisions, the plastic helmets split easily and the face mask tended to disconnect without warning. Riddell quickly adjusted the construction and design of the helmet and, with the support of coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears, had plastic helmets deemed legal for NFL play by 1949. Soon after that plastic helmets became the official helmets of the NFL, replacing their leather precursors.
Over time modifications to the original plastic helmets have been minimal. Four point chin straps became required for college athletics in 1976 after safety concerns were raised about the single straps. The 1980s and 1990s saw the adoption of stronger Polycarbonate alloy plastic helmets with steel alloy face masks. And in 2002, Riddell released a new, more spherical design for the helmet, which helps to reduce the likelihood of concussion, that quickly became the most widely used helmet in the NFL and spawned many copies.
Helmet producers and the scientists they employ are constantly investigating new materials and designs they hope will be the next big innovation in football helmet history.