In 1995, I wrote the first ever book on collecting and pricing vintage sports equipment for SCD. The purpose was to, for the first time, put down the different styles of sports equipment and create a separate grading system for each piece which at the time was no small feat. Obviously, you can’t grade a catcher’s mask the same as shin guards, leather helmets or gloves. The result was a book of generic, non player, vintage equipment putting down verbiage that had been used for years by collectors but was not the verbiage found in catalogs. No where in any catalog was the term “executioner’s helmet” ever written yet the die hard collectors had been using that term to describe a helmet with an attached leather face mask. Like wise, we had been using terms such as “rain cap” , “soft shell”, “Grange style”, “Aviator style” or “Flat Top” along with factory terminology such as “Princeton style” . Most of the terms used back then by collectors more aptly described the style of helmet rather than the factory used terminology.
Collecting non major league professional vintage store bought equipment was in it’s infancy in 1995 dating back to the earliest collector push in the late 1980’s and at one time, I knew just about everybody who even cared about this stuff. Since there were so few collectors, it seemed as if there was a never ending supply of most style of leather helmets but even back then, there were a few items considered the holy grails of collecting with prices that today might seem inconsequential. In fact, many of the major card dealers of the era such as Bill Mastro called us the garbage collectors, guys who bought , sold and collected what they considered, at the time, to be worthless with no future investment potential. As anybody knows who hasn’t lived in a cave, it turns out that some of this “garbage” commands prices in the five figures today and some twenty years later, the rare and the common has been well defined. Items such as fingerless workman style gloves of the 1890’s and rare football helmet styles still lead the pack when it comes to value, just as they did almost twenty years ago, with one big exception, there are far more collectors of this “garbage” today and the supply has never been, nor ever will, be able to keep up with demand. Therefore, it is not unusual to see such items today featured in many of the major auction house catalogs with lofty descriptions about rarity and condition. What was once a small niche collecting field has hit main stream in a big way and has been recognized as such, even by the nay sayers of old. In fact, Josh Evans of Lelands was one of the first big auction houses to really focus on memorabilia rather than cards dating back to his old live auctions across from Madison Square Gardens. (MEARS still has every one of those old catalogs)
I could do an article on each category and go into listing rarity, demand, price increase and availability for items such as chest protectors, shin guards, masks, gloves, etc. etc but one field really stands out above the rest when it comes to the sheer volume of new collectors and the strong prices these pieces have been bringing in recent years and that is the field of collecting the old leather football helmets (or head harnesses as they were listed in the original catalogs). I will use the terminology from my 1995 book and compare prices then and now starting with the most desirable helmets on every collector want list down to the most common and least desirable so the beginning collector can get a feel of what is in store for him/her and the pitfalls to avoid.
Let’s start out with the golden rule of all collecting and this is the best piece of advice I can give every new collector and some seasoned vets as well. Do not get caught up with buying every item you come across in your collecting path. It is the tendency that when the fever hits, you buy just about everything only to find out in a few years that you have probably over paid for items that are in off condition, of cheap quality, or are so common that unless in gem mint condition, you might never re-coup your original expense. That advise, buy rarity and condition always. Buy quality, professional quality, not the cheap dime store stuff that was produced in mass quantity , that is unless it is gem mint NOS and the price is right. If you are on a budget as most of us are, save your money for the real gems and remember, the best of the best defines a collection, not sheer volume. Better to have a half dozen museum pieces than hundreds of beat up , decrepit items simply because they were cheap and readily available as you will find yourself out of money when the truly great piece comes around and you will get the old ho hum from the savvy collectors. Generally speaking , garbage is garbage regardless of age.
That said, lets start with the top two items in our collecting category;
THE EXECUTIONER HELMET:
Often referred to in original catalogs as the perfect helmet for linemen, strap leather face guard , sometimes detachable, offered in both full face and half face styles. These helmets were offered all through the 1920-30’s and given their long production run and the fact that just about every company making football helmets offered their version of this style helmet, it is simply amazing that so few have survived. If they weren’t selling, why did the companies offer them for such a long length of time? What ever the reason, they are one of the two holy grails of leather football helmets, regardless of maker. In fact , we have sold two in the last two years , both of which went for over five figures. We listed this style helmet in 1995 in near mint condition at $1200. How rare are they? We personally know of less than 15 that have surfaced in over twenty years. Not a scientific count by any means but one which I feel is fairly accurate as to the survival rate of this style helmet now in collections.
SPALDING’S PNEUMATIC HEAD HARNESS:
Oddly enough, only the second known (to this author) of this one year (1905) style helmet sold last month on EBAY. I could only find it offered by one company and only in the 1905 catalog at a list price of $5. Touted as “one of he greatest improvements that has so far been invented in the way of equipment for foot ball” , it incorporated an air filled inflated crown (or doughnut) on top of the existing flat top style leather helmet with an air filler attached inside. The idea was to fill this crown with air to soften the blow of an opponent, much like the air bags on today’s automobiles. Unfortunately, one good blow and crown would split and no longer hold the air, a problem found on both known examples. The short one year production run and a one company offering, this model is the most elusive of all helmets and again, sold for near five figures on EBAY and the condition was very good at best as is the other known example. Bottom line, if you ever get a chance to buy one, don’t hold out for a better condition model as it is highly unlikely to ever surface. Our value in 1995, $1200 but it didn’t matter as not a single example had ever surfaced for sale.
SPALDING HEAD HARNESS (early four spoke strap helmet):
Collectors refer to these models, regardless of maker, as the four strap or four spoke model although the earliest examples were made by Spalding. They were offered from about 1890 with variations of material and additional spokes well into the 1920’s but it is the all leather, with full half inch wool felt padding , four straps with donut style ears and often found with metal rivets in their construction dating to the 1890’s that are most valuable. A nice high condition Spalding model 30 or 35 will set you back at least $7500 on today’s market. Our price in 1995 was $600 near mint.
IMPROVED HEAD HARNESS:
Dating to the same time period of 1895-1900, the improved model as seen in the Spalding No 50 model was simply a single leather crown that resembled a bowl with two sewn on ears, wool padding and a double laced chin strap. These early models are again, virtually non-existent on today’s market and would sell for around the same as an early four spoke, or about $7500 in nice condition. We didn’t even bother to delineate this particular model in our 1995 price guide , instead lumping it into the “rain cap” category, a term used by collectors for a simple crown and two ear protectors. Price then $500
This was a helmet much like the so called flat top model in which the top of the helmet was attached to the body of the helmet, usually in four to six places , with visible space between where the hair could be seen from outside. This style was aptly named after the University where it became popular in the 1890’s and remained in most major catalogs until the 1920’s. Again, it is elusive which defies the years offered and companies that carried this style yet I have not seen one on the market in over five years. Expect to pay $5-7500 for a nice example today, depending on the era.
Offered by every mfg. of helmets and available in all leather , all canvas, or half and half. This style of helmet existed from the 1890’s thru-out the 1920’s and was very popular. So called by collectors because the top of the helmet is actually flat, they are not that rare today but in top condition and the fact that every collector wants one or more of the different variations such as the bee hive style which is a roll padded shell, the all leather, the canvas with leather top, etc. etc. they continue to sell in the $2500-4500 range. 1995 price in near mint, all leather $650
RAIN CAP OR AVIATOR STYLE:
Again, just a generic collector term to describe a soft top helmet that is not flat on top yet is not stiff either, i.e. It resembles a helmet that reminds one of an old rain cap, soft and pliable , could be folded and is often found so. Again, there are so many varities of so called rain caps that were made from the 1890’s thru the 1920’s that to collect one of every style would encompass dozens of examples yet the earliest models generally sell in the $3-4500 range and the later models in the $2-3000 range. 1995 price; $500
This is the model that was most popular during the 1920-30’s , as popularized by Red Grange in which the all leather helmet had more form and less give than earlier models. There are hundreds of variations but all have one thing in common, they have a hard leather crown and hard leather sides with the ears either defined or part of the helmet, separated forehead pieces , straps of leather over the top crown and available in all different colors. Brown or tan versions in near mint condition usually sell in the $500-1500 range depending on quality and maker. Rare color variations such as factory green, red, yellow, purple, etc will bring 2-3 times this amount.
Popular during the 1920-40’s, these models bear facsimile autographs of famous players and coaches and depending on the endorsement, generally sell in the $1000 range with the Bronco Nagurski model being the most elusive. I have never seen nor heard of one existing except in catalogs but a nice model would bring at least $5000. Players such as Red Grange and coaches like Knute Rockne or Bob Zuppke models are far more common but are getting much harder to locate nice examples. You will also find some of the cheaper models (low grade construction) with some endorsed models such as Frank Leahy. On these models, buy only the mint examples. Average price for endorsed helmets in 1995 was $450 in near mint with 50% premium for Bronco.
Dog Ear; This is simple a collector term for any leather helmet where the ears are difined (ie not fully part of the sides and back ) and hang down like an old hound dog. This style of ear is found on the earliest head harnesses and was still be used in the 1930’s although they really are the transition from the soft shell dog ear helmets of the teens and earlier to the stiffer Grange style helmets of the 1920-30’s. General price range today for a soft shell 1920’s dog ear style helmet which is fairly common is in the $7-1500 range if near mint. One brand new in box circa mid 1920’s Black Wilson with a worn original box sold for $3500
Use and munufacture of all leather helmets started to fade in the late 1930’s and into the 1940’s with the combination construction of composition shells and leather accents and then into the late 1940’s with all composition material even though top quality all leather helmets were still being offered by MacGregor well into the 1950’s . Only the top of the line all leather helmets of this era continue to have strong collector interest with the combo helmets (compo shells with leather trim)selling in the $2-300 range and top quality all leather models selling in the $400 range unless of an unusual color or design. A mint green 1940’s MacGregor helmet would sell in the $1500-2000 range today.
A few last tips. Remember, in all the early catalogs, every helmet is listed as a head harness, not a football helmet so don’t let the term “harness” automatically make you think of 1890. Anything pre 1940 in its original box is rare, anything pre 1930 in its original box is next to impossible. Color and design sells. Buy factory original bright colors and unusual styles such as an over size Michigan Wing Front or a Tortoise shell front. Buy any top condition top quality pre 1920 helmet and anything from the turn of the century in just about any condition. To determine if a helmet is the original color or painted, look at the stitching. Factory colors were done and then stitched in white, painted helmets will have the same paint on the stitching. Generally, I stay away from painted helmets unless really minty or a pro model helmet such a yellow painted early all leather Green Bay Packers helmet or a 1940’s all leather painted LA Rams helmet (probably the most desirable style leather helmet every made and worth thousands regardless of any player id, ps watch for recent paint job fakes) Once you take on collecting leather helmets, it will inevitably lead to union suits, friction strip jerseys, nose guards, and memorabilia so go with the flow, it’s a lifetime of adventure and should offer a good return on your investment when you go to sell.
Until next time, David Bushing.
POST SCRIPT: All helmets shown in this article are either listed for sale or have sold on the Bushing and Kinunen MEARS For Sale Site. The current inventory has some 18 leather helmets available. We are adding product all the time so be sure to check back frequently.