Jewish peasants in the 1880's had little hope for a better life in Galicia. Isolated from the rapid industrialization that was transforming the western world, much of this rural, agricultural region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still struggling to throw off the remnants of serfdom. A lack of economic opportunities, chronic food shortages, and a growing intolerance of religious minorities led to the mass emigration of Galician peasants to North and South America between 1880 and 1915.
Sixteen year old Abraham Schemel journeyed across the Atlantic to New York in 1885, seeking a new life in the 'Land of Opportunity.' Speaking only Magyar, the Hungarian language, Schemel found work as a harness-maker, a trade he undoubtedly learned in Galicia, where bridles and halters were essential to the agrarian way of life.
1900 was a seminal year for Abraham Schemel. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, and, almost 15 years to the date he first stepped foot on American soil, he was awarded a U.S. patent.
Lawrence Burns emigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1854 at the age of 15. Lawrence worked as a "slaiter" or roofer in Springfield, while his wife, Mary, stayed home to raise their four children. There's no record of their youngest son Joseph ever playing football. His connection to American football and Abraham Schemel are a mystery, other than the U.S. Patent they shared, No. 653,544, the "Apparel-Waist," which was submitted in April, 1900. In fact, at the time, Joe Burns was living at home and working as a raiload switchman. The fact that Burns' name was listed first on the patent suggests that he may have sought out Schemel to create and refine his idea for protective football pads.
The invention, which was touted as "new and useful Improvements in Jackets for Foot-Ball Players," was a fascinating amalgam of animal harness and medieval armor. The sole leather "jacket" featured articulating shoulder and upper arm guards connected by elastic webbing. The concept of an armored jacket for football was novel; if a turn-of-the-century player wore protective pads at all they would likely be nothing more than cotton batting sewn into their clothing.
Unfortunately for Burns and Schemel, the Apparel-Waist didn't catch on. No record of it being sold to the general public exists. If it were manufactured, the jacket would have been heavy, hot, and limiting in range of motion. It also would have been difficult to mass-produce. According to the patent, the jacket was to be adapted "to the form of the body by being molded in a suitably-plastic condition and then permitted to harden and set." The jacket therefore could be manufactured to a given players specifications, but was not adjustable for different body types and sizes. Individually tailored, the Apparel Waist's manufacturing process simply didn't fit in the industrialized, assembly line world of the 20th century.
Three years later, at the age of nineteen, Abraham married a Russian immigrant named Katherine, and after welcoming daughters Jennie and Mary into the world, the young family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the horseless car (1825), vulcanized rubber (1844), the American gasoline-powered car (1893), and basketball (1891). Abraham's move to Springfield was prescient, the handwriting was on the wall that harness-making was dying a slow death. By 1900, the number of automobiles on the road was set to outpace carriages within a decade. Fortunately for Abraham, the growth of the automobile industry and the rise of sports in New England opened doors for a skilled tradesman that was willing to take risks and adapt. In 1900, Schemel's decision to follow a new career path was documented in the Springfield Directory; his profession was listed as "ballmaker," while the 1900 U.S. Census recorded his occupation as "football manufacturing."
Galician peasant immigrants, circa 1890
1900 Springfield, MA Directory
Schemel's occupation 1900 U.S. Census
Schemel was awarded a patent for the Jacket for Foot-Ball Players on November 20, 1906. Unlike many inventors of the day, Schemel didn't sell the patent to a national sporting goods company to manufacture. However, despite the superiority of his design, there is no written record that Schemel produced the jacket for retail sale. While America's youth was bombarded with advertisements for Spalding, Reach, and Draper & Maynard goods on a daily basis, no record exists of a single advertisement for Schemel's jacket or Empire Sporting Goods Manufacturing Company in any newspaper, catalog, or periodical of the day. After being listed as a "sporting goods manufacturer" in the 1904 Yonkers directory, Schemel occupation was once again listed as "harness maker" in 1906. So, what happened? Did Empire fail? Was Schemel's innovative design abandoned and forgotten? The one known surviving example of Schemel's jacket contains clues to help answer these questions.
It is well understood that in the game of foot-ball the collar-bone and shoulders are especially liable to injury, and while some attempts have been made to protect these parts the means heretofore devised for the purpose have been inadequate and clumsy and not acceptable to foot-ball players.
In accordance with my invention I provide a flexible jacket fitting the upper portions of the body and so constructed, arranged, and padded that the jacket is not only entirely comfortable of use, but does adequately protect the collar-bones and shoulders and enables the exercise of the highest degree of skill in playing the game.
Patent Illustration, Jacket for Foot-Ball Players, Abraham Schemel, Submitted January 9, 1905
A Return to New York
In 1903, Abraham Schemel, formed the Empire Sporting Goods Manufacturing Company in Yonkers, New York with Michael Finkelstein and Morris Chavin. In the early 1900's, Finkelstein owned a butter company in Yonkers, while Chavin was a fish merchant in New York City. Neither man had any connection to sporting goods beyond the initial founding of the company. It is possible that Schemel was related to either Finkelstein or Chavin through marriage, as both men and Katherine Schemel emigrated to New York from Russia in the 1880's. The three men made an initial investment of $10,000 in the company, equivalent of nearly $300,000 today.
Spalding No. B & D Improved Shoulder Pads Ad, 1906
Learning from his experience with Joe Burns and the failure of the Apparel-Waist, Abraham set out to design a functional protective device for football players that adequately protected the shoulders and collarbones but did not inhibit normal range of motion.
The need for such a device was certain. Between 1900 and 1905, 45 football players died of injuries sustained on the football field. New mass momentum plays delivered devastating force and gruesome injuries onto unprotected opposing players. Sporting goods manufacturers were slow to respond. In fact, A.G. Spalding's entire line of shoulder protection in 1906 consisted of simple felt lined leather or moleskin shoulder caps and sew-on pads.
Schemel submitted his design to the U.S. Patent office on January 9, 1905. Dubbed the "Jacket for Foot-Ball Players," the design reveals Schemel's keen understanding of the kinetics of the human body. Protective yet flexible, the jacket incorporated design elements still in use today. The pliable leather lace up vest with wool padding about the chest, provided for a proper, comfortable fit that allowed players to move their arms freely. Schemel described his invention as follows:
Patent illustrations, the "Apparel-Waist," submitted April 6, 1900
In 1905, the blueprint for the modern football shoulder pads was created by Abraham Schemel, an obscure immigrant inventor whose rise from a harness making peasant to a successful American businessman epitomizes the "American Dream."
New York Herald, December 25, 1903
On each shoulder cap is a bold 3" wide stamp listing the patent name, number, and inventor. If the pads were never produced or sold, Schemel wouldn't need to display this patent information so prominently. The stamps clearly indicate that Schemel was wary of patent infringement and wanted to protect his design as the pads were released to the marketplace. In addition, the name "E.H. Koch," the dates, 1911, 1912, and 1913, and "CC" are written on one of the shoulder caps. If the pads were a patent model, why would E.H. Koch wear them 6 years after the patent was issued? As it turns out, discovering who E.H. Koch was enabled us to piece together the rest of Abraham Schemel's story.
After days searching newspaper archives for a football player named Koch in the early 1910's, I got a lucky break and discovered Edward Harry Koch, Colorado College's right guard from 1911-1913.