While Naismith, Reeves, and Barclay have been celebrated for their innovations, the first inventor to actually patent and retail a football head protector has been all but forgotten. Born in Albion, New York in 1863, Thomas W. Larwood, Jr. worked as a clerk in Albany until the mid-1880's, and then as a salesman in Chicago, Illinois, in the late 1880's. By the early 1890's, Larwood had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he partnered with Clinton Day to found the Larwood & Day Co. In the 1894 Cleveland Directory, Larwood & Day was listed as a retailer of books, stationery, news and sporting goods at 259 Superior Street.
Thomas W. Larwood, Jr. - The Forgotten Inventor
It is well-known to those familiar with the popular sport of foot-ball that whatever its original character may have been it has now become an exceedingly hazardous game to the person of the players, and that players are constantly subjected to more or less severe personal injury and especially about the head, face and ears where there is no clothing to protect. I have therefore conceived the invention herein described, which is designed to afford a perfect protection especially for the head and ears. At the same time it does in no sense interfere with the most perfect freedom of movement and is sufficiently open to avoid objection on account of heat or closeness about the head and face. "
Patent Illustration, Patent 532,567, "Head Protector" T.W. Larwood, Jr. submitted September 15, 1894
....and the Inventor is....
This style head harness is the lightest and most comfortable to wear of any head guard yet devised. It is made of tan leather and thoroughly padded with wool felt a half-inch thick, with an elastic to go under the chin, and is adjustable to any size head. It is a thorough protection to the crown and back of the head, also to the ears..........................No. 35. Each, $2.25
A.J. Reach No. 35, circa 1897
Thomas Larwood's design was clearly a new and useful improvement specifically designed as injury preventive equipment for football rather than a protective device for existing injuries. His invention was the first to protect both the crown, back of the head, and ears and his patent was the template for the very first head harnesses sold by Spalding and Reach, the preeminent equipment manufacturers of the time. As a result of its lightweight and airy design, Larwood's head harness gained the acceptance of players, university and high school athletic directors and trainers, and even the game's most diehard purists. All future head harnesses, head helmets, and helmets can trace their evolution back to Thomas Larwood....the true inventor of the football helmet.
Team photo with players wearing No. 35 head harnesses, circa 1898
A.G. Spalding & Bros. Head Harness Evolution 1895-1925
A.J. Reach & Co. Head Harness Evolution 1895-1925
Proof that Larwood's design was the inspiration for Spalding's first head protector is the patent date emblazoned on the forehead of the No. 35, January 15, 1895, which is clearly a reference to Larwood's patent. Starting with the Larwood inspired No. 35, Spalding and Reach dominated the evolution of the head harness for the next 30 years.
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Who Invented the Football Helmet?
March 23, 2015
Updated January 15, 2017
While the No. 35 would launch a new line of protective gear for Spalding, Larwood's patent apparently did not translate into success for Larwood & Day. The company disappeared from Cleveland business directories by 1897. By 1899, Larwood had changed careers and was listed as a real estate agent, an occupation he continued to hold until his death in 1923.
Larwood & Day Advertisement, The Cleveland Directory for the Year Ending July, 1894
Larwood not only designed his Head Protector, thanks to a recently discovered rare catalog, we know he manufactured and sold it as well. Collister & Sayle's "1895 Catalogue of Foot Ball Goods" contains 14 pages of ads for footballs, pants, pads, sweaters, and on page 10, an advertisement for the "Larwood Foot Ball Helmet."
The catalog advertisement is significant for several reasons. First, it is the earliest known advertisement for a football helmet. The only other contemporary form of football headgear sold were Spalding's ear protectors, which were first produced in 1893. However, Spalding's ear protectors were exclusively for the protection of the ears, while Larwood's helmet went further, it "affords protection to all parts of the head and ears..."
Second, the catalog advertisement contains the earliest documented use of the term "foot ball helmet." Late nineteenth century 4-spoke head protectors were commonly referred to as "head harnesses" in light of their similarities with horse harnesses. Foot ball head protection wouldn't be commonly known as a helmet until the term "head helmet" appeared in advertisements around 1900.
Larwood's helmet didn't escaped the notice of A.G. Spalding's distributers and executives 350 miles away in Chicago. With the helmet "meeting with favor among players wherever used," Spalding acquired Larwood's patent rights to the Head Protector and began production of their own version, the No. 35, in 1897. The No. 35, which was produced by Spalding and its subsidiary, A.J. Reach & Co., was identical to Larwood's design except that the elastic forehead strap had been moved to the front of the head as opposed to the rear. The No. 35 was sold by Spalding until 1903, and was described as follows:
Larwood Foot Ball Helmet Advertisement, 1895 Collister & Sayle Catalog
On September 15, 1894, Larwood submitted a patent application for a "Head-Protector" for football players and was issued Patent No. 532,567 on January 15, 1895. Larwood's "Head Protector" was the first headgear specifically designed to protect both the head and ears of football players. Larwood's specification for his invention states:
Larwood Foot Ball Helmet Advertisement, 1895 Catalogue of Foot Ball Goods
A.G. Spalding No. 35, circa 1897
A.J. Reach No. 35
A.G. Spalding No. 35
Closeup of Spalding No. 35 forehead stamp