When “football” first began being played in the United States it was indeed called football, but it looked far more similar to the game of rugby that had been imported to collegiate fields from across the Atlantic from England.
This means that there were no players wearing headgear when Princeton and Rutgers squared off for the first college football game in history in 1869.
It’s the 1890s before any consistent mention of head protection devices are found with at least a couple of sources claiming that the first in-game use of a “helmet” came during the 1893 edition of the Army Navy game in Annapolis.
The obvious reason for the helmet’s coming of age in football and its eventual technological transformation was and is injury prevention.
This scenario was spurred along as the game of American football changed from the rugby-like game of the 19th century to the game we know today; a slow but steady change brought on by a series of rule modifications introduced by the likes of Walter Camp.
Camp’s revolutionary ideas included introducing the snap, instituting the three-down and five system (which led to the four-down and 10 system), modifying the field size, allowing tackling below the waist, mandating the number of players on the line of scrimmage, etc.; all changes that ultimately separated “football” from “rugby” and also created a need for protective equipment.
Though some folks will still say that Rugby is still just as tough a game as American football—minus the over-the-top use of shielding equipment—consider the fact that 23 participants actually died playing college football in 1905 prior to rules being tweaked and defensive gear being introduced.
That said, helmets were not a mandatory piece of equipment in college ball until 1939, so before that time looking across a field on game day you were likely to see a sampling of bare heads and a wide variety of “helmets.”
The first helmets used in football were made out of leather straps or mole skin fused together to protect players who had a concern for their own safety.
These crude, handmade helmets, which didn’t even cover the entire head, gave way to the more familiar “ear flap” or aviator models we think of when we conjure up visions of the earlier editions of gridiron head protection.
The idea of padding for comfort coupled with impact absorption toyed with in the early leather models was improved upon by Illinois coach Robert Zuppke, who led the Illini to a 131-81-12 mark from 1913-1941 including eight Big Ten titles and four national championships.
Other than the actual leather product stiffening and becoming more impact resistant over time, the next major advancement in helmet technology came in the 1940s when a Chicago sporting goods company by the name of Riddell patented the plastic football helmet.
Though the plastic helmet had its obvious early drawbacks (to keep things in perspective the mass production of plastics didn’t start in earnest until the 1930s and 40s), its emergence spelled the end of the era of the leather helmet.
Once the technology for plastics and synthetic materials ramped up adequately the helmet began to take the shape of the modern head gear we are more familiar with today.
This progression included the introduction of the wide array of color and logos that modern helmets offer, but this certainly doesn’t mean that players didn’t paint their headgear even in the earliest days of football.
In fact, the iconic styling of the University of Michigan's helmet actually follow the original lines on the Wolverine’s once-leather helmets, thereby connecting present day equipment with the far-off past.
Other than displaying school spirit, players also painted their headgear for more functional means in the early days, as once the forward pass was introduced in 1906 QBs could spot their receivers downfield more easily with a distinctly different colored helmet.
In the early 1970s Riddell set the standard once again by introducing it’s HA series of helmets that featured vinyl pads inside the helmet that could be filled with air to further absorb impact and facilitate a more custom fit.
Riddell’s Revolution Speed helmet is now the standard in the game and though plastic is still stuff headgear is made of, science continues to formulate new variations that perform better at lighter weights both inside and outside of the helmet.