The seemingly archaic early football equipment meant and designed to protect the player may seem comical compared to today’s standards but one must remember them within the context, a time period that included, at one time during the later half of the nineteenth century, no equipment at all. Today, we look at the rubber nose guard with mouthpiece as more dangerous to the wearer than the opponent and rightfully so but it seems to me that a broken nose was a lot less costlier than replacing busted teeth but hey, that’s just me. Along with nose guards came the early strap helmets, those strips of leather with a half-inch of cotton batting covered with leather to protect the cranium, the first of a long line of inventions for headgear.
If one was to try and get all the early styles of football helmets from the late 1890’s through the end of the leather helmet era (late 40’s and early 50’s), you might have a collection of dozens of different examples as each company varied their styles at least a bit but there is a basic category for style helmets regardless of manufacture. You have the stocking cap as the earliest style but not actually a helmet as it offered no protection aside from a place to tuck your hair. This was followed by the strap helmets, flat tops, rain cap styles, dog ears, Grange styles, and finally the hard shell leather or partial leather. Front forehead designs include the turtle front, wing front, strap front, etc.
If rarity and value is based on the style of the football helmet, there are two styles of helmets that stand head and shoulders above all others. Flat top helmets, especially the Princeton style along with early strap helmets and early rain caps certainly garner keen collector interest but the two top money makers on today’s collector market are priced to make the weak at heart stagger just a bit.
The rarest of all football helmet styles would have to be the pneumatic head harness introduced by Spalding in their 1903 catalog and a no show by 1905. This rare helmet, with only one known maker and a short two-year run and being none to popular is the most likely reason behind the fact, that to my knowledge, there is only one known surviving example in a private collection today (If I am wrong and you know the whereabouts of another, we would all appreciate that information). The pneumatic head harness was a type of helmet that looked like an average flat top style with an inflatable ring on top somewhat like an inner tube. Air was hand pumped into the ring, which was meant to help soften head blows. One can only speculate as to what the currently only known surviving example might sell for but it would most assuredly be in the five figure range even though it’s not a particularly interesting looking helmet, at least when compared to the second rarest and most valuable of all leather football helmets The next helmet in line for top honors is a gothic throwback to the medieval era. A leather helmet that would frighten most folks today if seen upon some person on the streets, a contraption more at home at a beheading than on a football field. The helmet that I am referring to is commonly called an Executioners helmet using the current collector vernacular.
Introduced in the late 20’s or early 1930’s, it was basically a standard Red Grange style helmet as seen in every football catalog yet it had in integral face guard made of leather attached to the front of the helmet. Remember, this is some twenty years before plastic; Lucite or steel guards were first bolted to leather helmets in the late 1940’s. Some, like the Spalding model, had a leather face guard that came all the way down in front to the chin. Others, like the D&M Face Guard model, were what we now refer to as a half mask, coming just below the nose with no protection for the mouth or chin.
Never popular due to the restrictive peripheral views and the risk of being easily blindsided, even pictures of players wearing these grotesque facemask style helmets are rare. The helmets themselves, because of their lack of popularity, make them one of the most soft after pieces in the realm of all vintage football equipment. With less than eight known examples to date, and no two known examples being alike, it could take years before you might be able to add an example to your football collection. Condition, while important, should not deter you from a purchase if an opportunity presents itself. Even a rough condition Executioners helmets sells in the $5-7000 range and a top example, such as the recently uncovered black D&M face guard model easily tops the five figure range. The D&M we are discussing is a superb example retaining all of the original silver lettering intact pronouncing it the “Face Guard” model helmet. The 1932-33 D&M Fall Winter catalog lists it as the model 70H and is promoted as “designed to give special protection to players with nose and face injuries and allows them to participate in scrimmage without the handicap of favoring a bruise or injury.
The helmet, along with its original catalog came with a sort of mini panoramic photograph of five players at practice, one of which is actually wearing a half mask Executioners helmet of the same style as the aforementioned D&M model. As a collection, the rarity of the helmet itself especially given the near mint condition along with the original catalog showing this model helmet in the company line up and an actual vintage photograph of a player wearing this exact style helmet is quite a find and would be a prize center piece in any football equipment collection. The Executioner helmet is in some ways, an art form, one of the most unusual and sought after of all the early football gear and is a must have in any top notch quality football collection but much like the galloping ghost, they are as elusive as they are desirable. Remember too that if you wish to start collecting vintage football gear, there is plenty of room at the entry level and with some patience, you should be able to eventually add most of the different style leather helmets to your collection but on scarce models such as a Princeton style or a fine condition flat top or strap helmet, do not hesitate when deciding to make that purchase as the rarer and higher condition models do not present themselves all that often and If you are ever offered the opportunity to add a pneumatic helmet or an Executioners style to your collection, count it your lucky good fortune as it will probably be more years before you see another example than the actual production and time frame of the original manufacture and sale of these vintage leather football icons. Good luck and happy hunting. David Bushing