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The History of Football Equipment

author image Mitchell Clark
Mitchell Clark has been writing since 2005, with articles published by various websites focusing on Libertarian political issues, current events, sports and other interests. He also hosts two blog talk-radio programs. A graduate of Beacon University, Clark holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts degree in theology.
The History of Football Equipment
Football equipment has evolved through the years. Photo Credit Michael Greenberg/Photodisc/Getty Images

American football first appeared on college campuses. In the 1870s, colleges began to schedule contests with each other for a game that highly resembled the contemporary game of rugby. Walter Camp later introduced rules of play that started the game on its way towards the modern reincarnation. Just as the game has evolved over the decades, so has the equipment players wear when competing.


Soft leather helmets, called "head harnesses" and worn as far back as the 1900s, were rare. They were primarily designed to protect the ears, but the full ear piece made communication difficult. Between 1915 and 1917, the first full skull protection helmets were introduced. The newer version featured ear holes and suspension, to keep the helmet from resting directly on the player's head. Harder leather and added cushioning, along with a more teardrop shape evolved in the 1920s and 1930s. The first plastic helmets were introduced in 1939 and a single face bar was later added. It was during this time that the NFL made helmets mandatory. From the 1960s to the present, football helmets have undergone changes to increase their ability to absorb impact. In the 1970s, the web-like interior was replaced with foam cells. Some helmets used air valves to create a custom fit. The latest innovation is the use of a polyurethane "cap" that fits over the outside of the helmet, providing additional protection against concussions.

Shoulder Pads

In the early years of football, players subjected themselves to ridicule from their teammates for stashing padding under their moleskin uniforms. Shoulder pads, becoming more popular by the 1950s, initially consisted of leather pieces sewn together. During the 1960s, hard plastic and foam replaced the leather. The new pads improved protection against shoulder and rib injuries, but the latest studies by the National Trainers Association found the material sped up overheating in athletes. In 2002, synthetic fibers designed for NASA were introduced, making shoulder pads lighter and more breathable. The University of Florida created a Temperature Management System, allowing a player to be connected to an air pump on the sidelines. The pump blows cold, dry air into air channels in the pads, effectively creating an air conditioning system.


Football pants in the 1890s were usually made of tough canvas material, with light padding sewn into the thigh and knee area. Quilted hip pads also date to the 1890s. The pants design, knee length with a lace-up fly, and materials changed little through the 1950s. Thigh pads began to be made of stiffer materials, while knee pads began to be made of foam. The pants were also designed with interior "pockets" to hold the pads in place. Hip and tailbone pads were also made of heavy foam, and later hard plastics, as technology improved. Today's football pants, while maintaining the original design, are made of nylon materials for greater comfort.

Athletic Supporter

First developed to provide comfort for bicycle riding jockeys who traveled the cobblestone streets of Boston, the athletic supporter, or jockey strap, was invented in 1874. A protective plastic cup was added in 1927. During the 1980s and 1990s compression shorts replaced the athletic supporter, but it is still a vital part of the football player's equipment.

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