Before helmets, football players wore nose masks to fight head injuries

Posted 29 August 2014 at 12:00 am

Photo courtesy of Cobblestone Museum – Homer C. Brown used this bat-wing Football Nose Guard, pat. 1891. Brown played football for Albion and his nose guard was donated to the Cobblestone Museum.

By Matt Ballard
Co-director of Cobblestone Museum

CHILDS – Well before “League of Denial” was released, before the NFL acknowledged the severity of concussions and beyond the widespread use of plastic helmets and facemasks, football players relied on leather helmets and homemade equipment for protection.

American football has changed a great deal over the last century and this “Victor Special” bat-wing style nose guard manufactured under Arthur Cumnock’s patent for the “Morrill Nose Mask” (1891) depicts the frightening history of football protection.

Arthur Cumnock cited in his patent that although blows to the face were not permitted in the game, players were allowed to push off of their opponents with considerable force.

Injuries to the nose and mouth were unavoidable during game, which could render a player unusable for a considerable amount of time.

The rubber nose mask was fitted with a strap that went around the head to keep the top portion of the piece in place. A rubber ledge was fitted on the backside for the player to place in his mouth.

The “bat-wing” style mask added extra coverage for the player’s cheeks and chin to prevent any severe injuries to those portions of the face. Holes were drilled into the front to allow for breathing.

The 1898 Albion Football Team pictured with their mascot “Rover.” Several players are depicted with nose masks hanging around their necks, including Billy Rose (center with football) who is wearing a nose mask similar to Cumnock’s 1891 bat-wing model. Pictured, from left, front row: Murray Hardenbook, “Rover” and Guyler Leslie. Second row: Fred Hillspaugh, Pete Galarneau, Billy Rose, Bert Squire, George Sullivan and Bob Clark. Third row: John Wilson, Frank Mason, Eugene Barnum, Clayton Blood and George Wall.

Spaulding featured this protective equipment in their catalogs for a period of time at the cost of 70 cents.

It would take another 60 years for head and face protection to become a serious concern for officials in the NFL.

This piece was not required for football players at any age and the bulky nature of the device caused it to fall to the wayside.

Today, these nose masks are highly sought-after artifacts that open the window into a bygone era.

Created to prevent serious injuries to athletes, it represents the first step towards player safety in a highly physical sport.

The nose mask pictured above was used by Homer Culver Brown while he was a student athlete on the Albion Football Team.

It will be displayed beginning this weekend at the Cobblestone Museum.

For more on the museum, click here.