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Today's Tidbit... When Leather Helmets Earned Their Wings
Let me start by saying I have never liked winged helmets, but as a chronicler of football’s past, it is my duty to reveal the game’s ugly side and its beauty. I’ve argued in the past that the 1930s produced football’s ugliest uniforms. Today, I’ll review how the decade’s helmets were no exception to the ugliness.
The front wings on the winged helmet originated to provide additional padding on the helmet's forehead. However, the sporting goods manufacturers took the opportunity to reshape the pad to add a bit of flare. In the days when few teams had helmet logos, the front pad and the straps crossing the helmet's crown were among the few ways to distinguish your otherwise brown helmet from your opponent's.
Helmets came in various designs before they earned their wings, but most looked like the Rawlings-Zuppke model below. Straps crossed the helmet crown with a small padded strap running across the bottom of the forehead.
Some schools painted their helmets in one or another of their school colors in the 1920s, but most left them in their tanned leather color. However, since jerseys often had leather-colored friction strips on the torso and arms, and some ball carriers took to tossing their helmets to the ground to trick defenders into seeing them as fumbled balls, a 1930 rule required:
… the solid color be broken by at least two stripes of markedly contrasting color at least two inches in width, and that the solid color of such jerseys (or attachments) be definitely broken up by stripes or numbers of markedly contrasting color.
Whether by tanning the straps and crowns in different colors or painting them in contrasting colors, the rule increased the focus on helmet flare.
While most manufacturers focused on form, D&M played the function card by adding a bumper that protruded an inch from the bottom of the pad.
A variation on the theme came from Reach Wright & Ditson, which opted for a "high shield front piece" while doing away with the straps crossing the crown. As shown in the first two models (NHG and PHG) below, the front piece frequently received a different color paint than the rest of the helmet. In addition, their SHG version had wing tips popping out from the leather surround on the bottom half of the helmet.
The 1934-1935 Rawlings catalog provided another great look, substituting arrows for wings along the side of the helmet.
The 1938-1939 Wilson catalog showed the range of styling choices available to the discerning football stylist, including the minimalist wings look and the "bird cage" face mask secured to the helmet with leather laces.
While leather helmets remained on the market into the late 1950s, we'll end the review with Wilson's 1940 offerings that included a streamlined version of the arrow look previously offered by Rawlings and the high shield look from Reach Ditson & Wright. It seemed as if the designers were running out of variations on the winged theme.
While the 1930s stylists ran out of variations, they still developed a reasonable number of different looks. Despite that, every school that retains the winged helmet look today seems to use the same wing design. Numerous ugly options were available, and the world would be better if those stuck with 1930s fashions would at least explore other options from the range of ugly styles produced that decade.
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