Facial protection in football dates as far back as 1890. That year, Princeton’s Edgar Allan Poe (a descendant of the famous writer) and Lafayette All-America David Balliet were reported to have worn homemade masks or frames that protected their nose. The design of the device worn by Poe was patented and mass produced a year later by the Boston based Morrill Company. The Morrill nose mask was widely used in the 1890s and 1900’s. Made of hard rubber, it covered the nose and was held in place with your teeth and an elastic band that went around the head. Holes were placed in the device for ventilation. The batwing version of the nose mask was wider and covered the cheek area just below the eye as well.
Within the collection of the Hall of Fame is a helmet worn by Columbia Hall of Famer Harold Weekes that also includes a Morrill nose mask.
Another early face mask is what was known as the “Executioner style” face mask. These came about in the 1920’s and were leather masks that were affixed to a helmet and would cover nearly the entire face, with just holes for the eyes and mouth. The main drawback to these masks were poor visability, and future designs had larger openings to allow for a greater field of vision.
Bar and cage face masks first became commercially produced in the early 1930’s. Vern McMillan, a sporting goods merchant from Terre Haute, Indiana first affixed a rubber-covered wire mask to a helmet.
Many players came up with home-made devices. The most famous of these may have been the facemask worn by Chicago Hall of Famer Jay Berwanger, the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy. When a broken nose did not heal as quickly as he had hoped, Berwanger had the Chicago equipment staff construct a single bar birdcage facemask. The mask did not allow him to get the helmet on or off in a normal manner, as the back was sliced open with a series of laces installed. To wear the piece Berwanger would have to be laced in to the helmet. This helmet is currently displayed in the Hall of Fame.
But the oddest facemask found in the Hall of Fame collection is one won by Hawaii’s Jack Kaaua. An injury caused him to lose sight in one eye, leading to him construct a birdcage facemask that originally called for two glass lenses to be supported by the mask. While the planed lenses were never added, the facemask has another unique feature. As there was no rule against grabbing a facemask, (implemented in 1957) he would be the mercy of opposing players looking for an advantage. But Kaaua tried to dissuade tacklers by placing sharp barbs at various points on the mask.
Commercially produced facemasks did not become popular with players until the 1948 introduction of the clear Lucite single bar facemask. These were short lived, and banned in the mid 1950’s as the Lucite mask was prone to shatter on impact. From there, Riddell produced the single bar face mask, which begat the two bar mask, and the eventual growth of the full birdcage mask we know today. At one point nearly a dozen firms made face masks, giving helmets a diversified look that does not exist today, as the number of face mask manufactures has dropped to only a few.