I have recently began collecting football helmets. Many of the helmets of the late 30's and 40's have a hard shell while the rest of the helmet is composed of leather.I have been trying to find out what materials are used that make up the shell All I have been able to find is that the shells of these helmets are made from"composite fibers". Until purchasing a Macgregor 1940's helmet I always thought these shell were made from a hard leather. If you could please take the time to answer this mystery for me I would greatly appreciate it!
Thank You,
Dear Tom

Thank you for your very interesting inquiry. One of the problems that many nonscientists have is relating to products that might be termed "pioneer products" and making comparisons to the same or similarly named materials we have for our use today. "Plastic" is a word that is used as a blanket term and it is very easy to forget that the "plastic" of 1930 and the plastic of today are of a different quality. Nearly all football helmet shells that were used after leather but before "modern" plastics were put in use in the mid to late 1950's were made of phenolic. Most phenolic products were produced by Spalding Fiber Company in the Northeast.  Phenolic resin, for the scientifically minded is produced as a result of a reaction of phenols with aldehydes. These lend themselves well to molded products such as football helmets. Additional materials are included in the production of the resins dependent upon the projected application of the finished product. One of the better known phenolic products includes the old Bakelite items. In use since the early 1900's, Bakelite was used for kitchen pieces and many will recall "mod-style" brightly colored Bakelite earrings and rings that many young people wore in the late '60's and early 1970's although the material was probably more frequently used with electronic components. As the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite has an appeal for collectors and of course, is given its rightful place of honor in circles where chemistry is taken seriously! In our modern age, phenolics are more often used for the manufacturing of plugs, punch boards, and other computer-related products.

Specific to football helmets, the phenolic resins were mixed with a base product and this could include wood, paper, or linen. Bakelite for example, originally used wood flour as its base product. For the helmets you are referring to, the "composite" was phenolic resin that was mixed with old rags and in the industry, this is sometimes referred to as "rag board" or "fiber board". Thus, when we make reference to the "plastic helmets" or the "composite helmets" of the 1939 to mid-1940 era, don't think hard, rigid, "modern plastic helmet" as the material was very different although it sported the same name, and the helmets were much more pliable.  


Hi Doc,

I wanted to know why the San Diego Chargers do not go back to the beautiful uniforms they wore in the Lance Alworth era? They wear this uniform one time every year for a home game and it looks awesome. Also, last year, I saw the Buffalo Bills wearing the uniforms they wore in the early 70's and they looked fantastic! The uniforms some of the teams wear today look terrible! There is too much clutter on many of the uniforms, too many patches, stripes, logos, etc. Let's go back to the classic style uniform. Thanks.



Dear Scott,

You will get no argument from the HELMET HUT staff regarding your comments. We could not agree with you more strongly and often bemoan the advertising billboards that some jerseys have begun to resemble. The contrasting side panels, stripe and/or piping arrangement on some of the jerseys is distracting and plays against the psychological value that the jersey and pants combination can serve. One of HELMET HUT'S favorite coaches was the late Hank Stram. As many know, his father was a salesman for a custom-made clothing company and this had a strong influence on Hank's sense of fashion and the manner in which he presented himself and his team. However, before anyone gets the notion that Hank's father was a "dandy", recall that he was a Polish immigrant originally named Wilczek, who had challenged the wrestling champion of the traveling Barnum And Bailey Circus, defeated him, and became the circus' new resident wrestler. It was during that period of time that the last name of Wilczek was altered to Stram and Hank grew up in the tough town of Gary, Indiana. However, his father's sense of style was always with him and the Dallas Texans and Kansas City Chiefs under Stram always had the reputation of dressing well on and off the field as a reflection of their head coach's manner of carrying himself. As noted in his autobiography, Hank talked about his Chiefs and stated that "My team arrived neatly attired in tailor-made, identical black blazers and gray slacks, white shirts and black ties, with the team emblem emblazoned on the breast pocket and tie. Their hair was neatly cut, their faces clean-shaven, as the club rules required-no facial hair, no long sideburns. Precision and style were our trademarks on and off the field." Stram also introduced red shoes and would mix and match the jerseys and sets of pants for varying effect. For some time it was standard for the Chiefs to wear red pants with their white jerseys but when going up against a team that was very large, Hank would dress the team out in all white, believing it made them look bigger.

Now, the only consideration for the appearance of a player's uniform seems to be the level of garishness it assumes and the certainty that the advertiser's logo is very noticeable. The Chargers would take the field in their beautiful Columbia blue/powder blue/"Charger blue" jerseys and even opposing players and fans would murmur and nod their heads in agreement that the uniform was the most striking in the entire league. Perhaps reflecting the current cultural norms, uniforms today are designed to bring attention to the individual player in many cases. In the Sixties and Seventies, the front and rear numbers were clearly seen in the stadium and on television, as were the sleeve or shoulder "TV numerals." Some teams would occasionally use a numeral style considered to be "different", usually an older type of font, but the numbers were always attractive and readable. On some of today's uniforms, the numbers are so stylized, designed to "demonstrate movement", or misshapen if only to be different from those of other teams, that they are nearly indecipherable from any distance. Traditional team colors have been replaced by the cultural obsession with black as a trim or primary color, despite the fact that black had never previously been associated with the specific team. 

The Chargers uniform has attempted to return to its more high-styled roots, utilizing a white helmet for the 2007 season but the jerseys remain a dark or navy blue. The Bills did use a "throwback" design for some games last season but it was not as stunning as the original Durene jerseys of past decades and of course, the advertising logos were clearly present. An interesting fact for our readers is that HELMET HUT has been called upon to provide the art work for the throwback helmets used by the Chargers, Bills, Redskins, Steelers, Bears, Cowboys and a number of other NFL and NCAA teams. The wealth of written, video, and photographic materials kept in the HELMET HUT vaults at the research center has allowed us to make a contribution towards more enjoyable NFL viewing and in our opinion, to also strike a blow for sensible and tasteful playing attire.