Before the advent of plastic football helmets, many football players wore leather helmets. It’s no coincidence that the earliest football helmet looked more like a padded aviator cap than the high-tech crash-tested helmet used by today’s players. The invention of the leather helmet most likely dates back to 1893, when Admiral Joseph Mason Reeve (the father of the modern aircraft carrier) had been kicked and hit in the head so many times in the Army-Navy game that his doctor warned him that another hard impact would lead to “instant insanity”.
Early football “helmets” were very crude and had several design challenges. They lacked proper ventilation making them very uncomfortable to wear. Ear flaps also made it difficult for players to hear. Even with the innovation of hard leather in the early 1900s, these helmets offered insufficient head protection. The final notable flaw is that they lacked facemasks. As a result, injuries were very common.
In 1939, the Riddell Company of Chicago, Illinois started manufacturing plastic helmets because it felt that plastic helmets would be safer than those made of leather. This innovation was quickly adopted. But it was not until 1943 that football helmets were deemed mandatory for the first time.