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Today's Tidbit... The Battle between Plastic and Leather Helmets
The first team to wear plastic helmets in a game was Northwestern when they did so in their 1940 season opener at Syracuse. A few other teams had access to plastic helmets that year, but restrictions on plastics during WWII meant teams relied on leather helmets for the duration. (Click here for a story on the plastic helmets used by WWII paratroopers.)
After the war, plastic helmets proved popular, yet they were bitterly opposed by some who believed they caused more injuries than they prevented. Notre Dame, for example, wore leather helmets during the 1956 season when Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy. They wore their yellow leather helmets with green straps again in 1957, before switching to plastic “golden dome” bonnets in 1958.
Sporting goods suppliers were stuck in the middle, so they pitched molded or plastic helmets to some and leather to the traditionalists. Here are several pages from a 1955 Spalding catalog offering both versions and accessories, such as mouth guards and face masks. (Click images to enlarge.)
Page 6 shows three helmet models, each with double padding above the nose (aka the nose bumper) and leather padding near the chin. All three come with "military-style chin straps" covering the chin rather than going under the jaw. Item 7309 is a mouth guard that attaches to the chin strap rather than the face mask since many players did not wear the latter. Note that the Spalding 3114 model has a $12.95 trade price (or $143.42 in 2022 dollars).
Page 7 has the top-of-the-line model, the 100 (3103) which costs $14.95 at the trade price without striping or other cool stuff.
One might think some coaches clung to leather helmets because they were cheaper than the high-tech plastic models, but that was not the case. The high-end leather model was $19.85 at the trade price, or one-third more than the high-end plastic model. So, money was not the issue.
And then there were the sundries, which is an excellent word worth using in sundry ways. Sundries included chin straps, leather helmet drying hangers, and face guards, which ranged from rubber-covered steel versions resembling today's models to Spalding's wide-lipped, horrifically ugly masks that went off the market several years later.
Of course, plastic helmets ultimately won the battle and have improved dramatically in the eighty-plus years since their introduction.
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