Football History As Told By Sporting Goods Catalogs: Footballs
Among the sources that best document the state of football at any given time are sporting goods catalogs. After all, those catalogs tell us the products manufacturers, great and small, offered for sale to high schools, colleges, and, later, professional teams across the country. Short of products still in the testing process, catalogs provide a freeze-frame of top-of-the-line materials -often touted by famous coaches- and the lesser and far lesser goods available to different market segments.
With that premise, this is the first of a series of posts, each of which will review a few items offered for sales at various times in football's history. In addition to images from period catalogs, I'll use each item to explain elements of the game at the time of each catalog's publication.
How Football Became Football describes how footballs evolved from inflated pig's bladders to leather-covered pig's bladders, and on to the rubber-bladdered ball we know today. The rugby ball used in the early years became shorter and thinner in stages over the years, but an underappreciated change was the introduction of valves in the 1920s. Before valves, footballs were inflated by stuffing bladders inside leather covers. The bladders had stems and were inflated using a pump or, as often, the mouth, as one does to blow up a balloon. Once inflated, they tied the stem with string, laced the ball, and then used it until it deflated again, and the process repeated.
Back then, footballs were unlaced and relaced all the time. It happened so often teams bought equipment to make the process, ahem, as seamless as possible. Now, I've lived my life without owning a bladder inserter, but I understand the need for a tool to insert a bladder into a football's leather cover. Once inserted, another device was handy for holding the ball in place, freeing both hands to lace that ball. And a bonus feature of the pictured device is that it worked equally well for volley balls.
After placing the ball into the lacing device, lacing ensued with the aid of various tools, now used only by the handful of artisans that restore or recreate period footballs. Today's laces, made of polyvinyl chloride, are not intended to be unlaced and relaced.
Among the more useless items found in a sporting goods catalog is the football carrier. I understand footballs were expensive, and games of the time were played using a single ball, no matter how soggy it might become. Balls were precious items that made the awarding of game balls all the more meaningful. Still, what was the purpose of the football carrier? Did it do something a pillow cover or potato sack could not do equally well?
My favorite catalog item found to date is the helmet form offered in the 1938-1938 Sutcliffe Athletic Equipment catalog. Like most readers of this article, I played football during the plastic helmet era, which overlapped the leather helmet era for twenty plus years (1940 to the early 1960s). While I wore my uncle's hand-me-down leather helmet in a few backyard games, I do not recall wearing his helmet on a wet or muddy day, so I never had to deal with a soggy leather helmet. Before the onset of plastic helmets, however, practices and games held in wet conditions resulted in soggy leather helmets that eventually dried out and conformed to their shape during the drying process. To prevent wet helmets from drying in distorted shapes, smart equipment managers provided players with helmet forms resembling the human head to ensure the wet helmets dried in tip-top shape.
Of course, helmet forms became unnecessary with the adoption of plastic helmets. Early plastic helmets might have cracked or shattered after a significant blow, but they did not take a different shape as they dried out.
That's it for now. Future posts will look at player equipment of old and football officials' tools, but the reader will need to wait a week or two for those posts to appear.
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