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The First Football Helmet Was “Football Hair”, Not Leather

It was a thing...


That’s what this video is out. The history of “FOOTBALL HAIR”.

Executive Summary:

This video discusses the history of football helmets, focusing on the evolution of safety equipment in the sport. It begins with a description of a 1912 Puck magazine illustration, showing two football players from 1912 and 1892. The player from 1912 is depicted with early versions of protective gear like shoulder pads and a helmet, while the 1892 player has no equipment but a massive head of hair. This imagery prompts an exploration into the historical belief that thick hair could serve as a protective helmet in football.

The author, Jon Johnston, delves into this unusual aspect of football history, citing sources like John Sayle Waterston’s College Football History book and various newspaper articles from the 1890s. These sources describe how players would grow their hair long to protect their heads, as helmets were not yet in use. The text references specific hairstyles like the scrubbing brush, chrysanthemum, and mop, popular among football players for their perceived protective qualities.

The author discusses the cultural and social impact of “football hair,” highlighting how it became a fashion statement beyond its practical use in the sport. Articles from the 1890s show that while some viewed this trend with humor and sarcasm, others saw it as a serious safety measure. Notably, an article from the Tribune of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1900 quotes George Washington Woodruff, a respected football coach, advocating for hair as a better protective measure than helmets.

To support these historical claims, Johnston examines team photos from the 1890s, comparing them to contemporary hairstyles from a barber manual. This comparison suggests that the long, unkempt hair seen in football players was indeed distinct from the more groomed styles of the era.

Concluding, Johnston reaffirms the central idea that the first “helmet” in college football was not made of leather or canvas but was simply the players’ own hair. He invites viewers to subscribe to his channel for more stories and insights into college football history, emphasizing the channel’s focus on uncovering overlooked aspects of the sport’s past.

Complete Transcript:

What you’re looking at is an illustration from the cover of Puck magazine from November 13, 1912. Puck was an American magazine that focused on political satire and humor. It was published in English and German editions from 1876 until 1918.

It was the first successful humor magazine in the United States. When I first saw this cover, I had the same thought you’re probably having right now, which is, “What in the hoot, nanny, is happening here?” In the illustration, what we see is two football players looking at each other with the caption, “Gee, but you look funny.”

It’s not difficult to understand the visualization of the player on the right. He’s labeled as being from 1912, and he is wearing what would probably be considered standard equipment at the time. He has a nose guard, early renditions of a wrist, elbow, and shoulder pads, and an early helmet design. Helmets in 1912 were many times more concerned with protecting the ears than the head, but I will get into early equipment as I proceed to make more videos on this channel.

The player on the left, labeled 1892, is more of a mystery. He is depicted with no equipment. They didn’t have much in the way of equipment in 1892, more on that later, but he has a massive head of hair. Why the massive head of hair?

Given my curiosity, I did more research, particularly about the hair, and what I found was that in 1892, or before the 1900s, there was a very popular and widespread belief that having more hair on your head was served as a helmet. In fact, they believed this so much that there were some people who believed that having a regular helmet, like we think is standard equipment today, was more of a detriment than having a huge head of hair. I’m not kidding. That’s what this video is about. It’s about the fact that the first helmet for football was hair.

I’m Jon Johnston, and this is Hardcore College Football History. [Music]

I hadn’t seen the helmet as hair bit anywhere. It’s very rarely talked about at a fall, so I went looking because that’s what I do. My goal for this channel is to find deep takes into college football history, and a lot of it has been overlooked and not talked about at all. There are mentions of players in the era around 1892 growing their hair out, specifically for football.

John Sayle Waterston mentions it in his College Football History book. He says, talking about equipment,

”Only the skulls remain exposed because players did not yet wear helmets or head harnesses. Instead, football men made a fetish of wearing long hair to map their skulls.” Waterston also references the Spalding Official Football Guide of 1891, which was edited by Walter Camp, the father of American football.

I haven’t been able to find the 1891 guide anywhere. I’ve found many other years of the Spalding’s football guides, but not 1891. Waterston also mentions a New York Times article on November 26, 1893.

It’s a very slight reference. It just contains the phrase, “All hair and yell.” That’s all I found initially. There had to be more on the hair thing. And I kept looking, and I kept looking, and I finally found articles that talk about “football hair.” And that was the key phrase to finding more.

But I found an article about football hair that appeared in newspapers across the nation. And I selected this version entitled, “Long Hair the Rage, the Football Players Have Set the Fashion” from the Crawford Gazette of Crawford, Nebraska on December 29, 1893.

The article shows us several hairstyles that might be worn by footballers of the day. There’s the scrubbing brush, the chrysanthemum, and the mop. The article also talks about how some young men might be wearing football hair, so that other people think that, “He, too, is a leader on the gridiron field of mud and glory.”

Then it continues, “The real football men who are primarily responsible for this new fashion have a good reason for their capillary luxuriance. All other parts of the body except the head are protected by artificial means from injury.

The canvas jacket worn over a heavy jersey protects the body and arms. Heavily padded canvas breeches cover the lower part of the body to below the knees, and stiff guards keep the feet of the opposing players from the shins. The face of a full-rigged football player is a steady and perverted physiognonomy.

Not only does he hold in his teeth a rubber mouthpiece and wear over his own nasal organ a false nose of hardened rubber which reaches up to the forehead, that even his ears are strapped down to prevent some enthusiastic foe from yanking them off. So all has been provided for but the head.” Then it goes to a section on practical advantages of hair padding where it explains further about the importance of football hair.

From the article, “When a candidate for one of the college teams leaves college at the end of the spring term, he turns his attention to raising a crop of hair. By the time he returns in the fall, he’s generally ornamented with a luxuriant growth. A certain latitude is allowed to personal taste in this matter. A player may keep his neck mode close, letting the hair on top of his head grow long and hang over in a protecting mat. This is the style that Newell of Harvard affects.

Or like Phil King, the Princeton quarterback, he may let it grow all over his head. The value of this was seen in a recent game when the field was very muddy. King being tackled about five yards from the goal line, plunged forward on his head and gracefully slid over for a touchdown. But for his chrysanthemum capillary crop, he would now probably be under medical treatment for gravel on the brain.”

There’s obviously a lot of sarcasm involved in this concept of football hair. Further on in the article, it discusses more styles layering on the sarcasm. For a rush line player, the aggressive pompadour style is popular. It not only looks savage, but is useful to poke into the eyes of the other team. Captain Hankey of Yale is fixed in this way. His hair looks as if he could impale a man on it. But Yale men deny the rumor that he intends to braid it into horns with which to destroy the eyesight of his opponents.

It’s not all sarcasm, though. From the evening star in the District of Columbia, Washington, November 28, 1893, we see an article complaining that the service academies, Army and Navy, cannot let their hair grow out because of policy and that this put them at a disadvantage. From the article, “When the cadet 11s at both academies began practicing for the context, they were seriously perturbed because the regulations prevented them from wearing their hair in the approved football method, and no amount of importunity could sway the powers that be to change the rules. It has been reported to the Navy Department that one of the best men on the Annapolis team has been badly injured in the head, so badly injured, in fact, that he will be unable to play on Saturday. And it is said that the wound would have been very slight if the unfortunate cadet had been protected by chrysanthemum locks.”

Going further, the concept of football hair is not just about football, but it is a cultural phenomenon. There are a lot of references to people being irritated with football hair. From the Franklin Repository of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, November 29, 1893, we see what is basically a cranky old man get off my lawn commentary that states, “Hasn’t the limit been reached in the football hairstyle by this time? Surely the fashionable young men look enough like idiots to satisfy the most fastidious.

Let us call a halt, boys, and while we play football like men, let us wear our hair like human beings with sound judgment and not have it like a Shetland pony’s foretop hanging over our eyes.” Then there is just the silly and fun. From the news tribune of Tacoma, Washington, October 8, 1894, we see the following labeled as a jingle, “The seasons come, the seasons go, and soon we must prepare to keep from hitting with an axe, the dude with football hair.” Which is hilarious. Now in another Puck Magazine cover from November 23, 1898, the caption states, “The modern maid is changeable as the seasons.” And what do we see? We see the football player with his exaggerated football hair and his other equipment, which includes a nose guard, padded pants, shin guards, and perhaps cleats. What we also see is a young woman clinging to him.

And perhaps it’s a sign that’s nothing changed since you were in high school where the jocks got all the girls. What you also see in the background are three other young men who are clearly namby-pamby guys, and they are by themselves and they look a little bit dejected because of it. We’ve come full circle because now you know why someone wants to hit the dude with football hair. Let’s go back to being serious for a bit. Another article from the Tribune of Scranton, Pennsylvania of October 13, 1900, a very serious article that states that hair is more protective than a football helmet. This article quotes George Washington Woodruff, who was the coach of the University of Pennsylvania.

Penn was one of the big powers at the time, and Woodruff was a well-known coach, respected, and responsible for creating the guard’s back formation and early foundation of formation football. At the end of the article, it states, “Coach Woodruff believes in protection for the arms and legs, but does not favor head gear. He thinks the usual growth of football hair is thick enough to prevent accidents, and says the leather helmets are not healthy.” Now as further evidence, we go to team photos, because I figured if there was football hair, it was going to show up in photos. Here I present the 1893 Penn football team as coached by George Washington Woodruff.

You might conclude as I do that we’re looking at a fairly motley crew. This guy, the guy in the top row, and this guy down here, and this other guy, and the guy in the second row, second from the right. Look at those guys and really overall what you see is a bunch of guys with fairly long hair, and you can go through gobs of team photos from that era and find something similar.

For example, here is the 1894 Penn State team. Again, we have some guys with fairly long hair. I look at these two guys sitting front and center. That kind of looks like the football hair description, doesn’t it? But then I wondered after looking at the team photos, is this really any different than how men regularly wore their hair at that time? So I tried to compare the team photos to, let’s say, a group of young men who were on college.

And believe me, I had spent way too long looking for photos, and I concluded that everyone wore hats. If they weren’t playing football, apparently they were wearing a hat of some type. I’m kind of joking, but it really was like 100% of the photos I looked at at young men, all of them were wearing hats. So instead, I found a book of hairstyles. The Bridgeford Barber Instructor and Toilet Manual from 1900 by Frank C. Bridgeford. And I took some pages from that, and I’m going to compare them so that you can see what the hairstyles for men looked like, and how they would compare to some of those football photos. I realize that this is perhaps getting a bit silly, but I’m dead set on proving this whole football hair as a helmet hypothesis.

First, look at the hairstyles. We can see that the well-groomed men here have considerably shortened hair. Everyone looks spiffy. I’m not sure what the words of that period would be used to properly describe the look. But if we compare a couple side by side, we can definitely see that these football hair dudes are considerably more ruffian looking than their well-groomed counterparts.

That’s probably enough on this subject. I could go on with many more references and quotes, but I believe I’ve made my point. The point being that the first college football helmet was hair. Not leather, not canvas, not bandages. It was just plain hair. Football hair.

There are a lot more college football stories to tell, and I plan on doing so in this channel. I hope you liked them and I hope you subscribed and stay tuned for more. Ideas are welcome.

Please share these videos with your friends who might be interested in either history or college football so that I can grow. This is Jon Johnston with Hardcore College Football History. Thank you. The face of a full-rigged football player is a study in perverted physiogninomy. Physiogninomy. The face of a full-rigged football player is a study in perverted physiogninomy. Physiogninomy. They really wrote this way.