Back on Thursday, this photo was posted on Uni Watch showing the Lions in their dugout at Tiger (Briggs) Stadium. It clearly shows 3 Lions players wearing the golden helmets worn in 1953.
We know that, in 1953, the Lions broke with tradition and wore gold helmets for all but 1 game (They wore royal blue helmets for a night game against the Colts). We have come across several photos of the gold helmets. Most, if not all, photos of these golden helmets show unusual splotches of green. This characteristic is evident in photos of Bobby Layne's gold helmet as well as Doak Walker's gold helmet on display in the HOF.
We would like your assistance. Can anyone out there inform us how far beyond the 1953 season these 'gold' helmets were still being worn?
It is my belief that during the next three seasons, 1954-56, some players may simply have told the equipment manager "Don't paint mine silver. Keep it gold." This would explain why all of the silver helmets are nicely painted and completely silver while others still remained golden. We think the dugout photo above is most likely from 1956 - as evidenced by the presence of the TV numbers on the sleeves (Thanks, Tim!). * - As a side note, isn't that an absolutely remarkable shade of blue on those jerseys?
The only problem with this logic is that most of these helmets were reportedly painted on the inside of a clear plastic outer shell. Notice inside both helmets above that the inside of the shell is, at the very least, grey in color. It is this 'silver' paint inside the helmet that is possibly the culprit here that has purportedly 'degraded' into gold. If this is the case, it would have likely been impossible for an equipment manager to strip this 'silver-paint-gone-bad' out from the inside of the helmet and repaint it on the inner shell with a fresh coat of silver. To me, this indicates that the dugout photo must have players mainly in NEW silver helmets with a few players opting to keep their (possibly) more comfortable, broken-in 'gold' helmets from the 1953 season.
A May 2009 UW lead article also includes one other important snippet of information that I think has been largely overlooked...
"Another issue, which needs edification, is the 'amateurish' greenish splotches [that] adorn the helmet’s shell. One might think that a professional football helmet would never have such discoloration. While that assumption is probably correct even for the 1950s, there is a plausible explanation. The gold paint used during this period was not pure; it was a blend of yellow, golds, and copper. The copper pigments had a tendency to degrade and turn green." The effect of which we still see today on pennies that develop a greenish residue over time. Captions for photos of these helmets have referenced this fact that the gold paint of the era included copper in it. Over time, the copper oxidized and produced green splotches on the helmets
If the helmets were painted on the inside with silver paint and they 'degraded' to the gold color we see, why then are the green splotches - evidence of copper found in 1950s gold paint - present? In addition to my duties as this site's graphic engineer, I make my living teaching high school math, not chemistry or metallurgy. Unless 60-year-old silver paint also contained characteristic amounts of copper like the gold paint is supposed to have, why did the green form at all? Just because the appearance 'turned from silver to gold,' that doesn't mean the chemical composition of the silver paint turned into gold paint. If they were truly painted with silver paint, no green splotches should have ever formed.
Another theory has also been uncovered. On the Helmet Hut website, a question was asked about these very same gold helmets. The response claims that it is not the silver paint that transformed to gold but rather the interior of the clear plastic shell, itself.
This is a great question and our answer may be challenged by readers who believe differently. It is our humble opinion that although some pictures of 1950s Lion's helmets seem to indicate otherwise we believe that the team never wore gold colored helmets on the field. Some fans believe the Lions wore gold helmets to commemorate the multiple NFL championships the team won in the 1950s.
The Lions have primarily used Riddell helmets since the late 1940s. Up until the late 1950s the Riddell helmet shell was made from a clear or see through soft plastic material trademarked "Tenite" by the company. This helmet was referred to as the "RT" or "Riddell Tenite" model. (In the early 1960s Riddell changed their helmet model name to "RK" or "Riddell Kralite" when they switched to a non clear harder plastic material they trademarked "Kralite.") The earlier 1950s clear plastic "Tenite" shells were painted at the Riddell factory on the inside surface of the shell prior to installing the interior suspension. It is interesting to note here that Riddell used clear shells painted on the inside surface long before helmet companies such as Macgregor, Kelly or Maxpro featured the same technique.
The clear soft "Tenite" plastic shell would yellow as it aged. After years of aging the original brilliant silver luster Lion's helmet appeared to turn gold when the highly reflective silver paint was viewed through its yellowing but still translucent plastic shell. If you look at the center ridge of a 1950s Lions helmet it will still appear silver compared to the remainder of the helmet which has seemingly turned gold. Regardless of aging the center ridge retains its original silver appearance because it was originally a separate strip of non clear plastic that was painted silver on its exterior surface. Riddell used this plastic strip as a trim piece to cover the joint where the two halves of the helmet shell were glued together.
Here is some interesting additional information regarding the 1950s Lion's helmets. In the early 1950s NFL teams played several night games and a white colored football was used. The league barred the Lion's from wearing their silver helmets for night games because they felt the white ball when viewed under stadium lighting was too easily camouflaged by the Lion's silver helmets. To comply with the league ruling the Lions painted their helmets blue for night games and then repainted them silver for daytime games until 1955 when the white colored night football was replaced by the conventional brown leather football for all games.
In February 2012, a thread was created in our own Forum.
In it, a gentleman posted an email he received from the Lions saying that the 1950s helmets had blue stripes (we posted photos showing they did not) and were never intended to be gold. As we were able to prove that the blue stripe never existed, that pretty much calls into question the accuracy of the Lions' recent statement regarding the lack of an intention to 'go to gold helmets.' But another part of this email is even more interesting.
"For night games, they had to paint their helmets blue because the they too closely resembled the white ball under the lights."
If my bachelor's degree grasp of the English language is still functional, I take this to mean that each player had one helmet. For night games, they were painted blue. Whether this painting was applied to the inside or outside of the helmet makes little difference. The team had the ability to change the color of the helmet. These helmets had to have, at one point, been made gold in color and thereby displaying the tell-tale green residue from the copper used in gold paint. Perhaps some element of gold paint prohibited the team from being able to strip the gold paint from the inside of the shell despite efforts to change its appearance - visible by the grey interiors shown above.
True or not, both the email from the Lions' and the Helmet Hut information still claim that the team was able to paint the helmets blue for night games so why did they not feel the need to change they 'goldening' helmets to the silver they should be unless they wanted them to be gold? Since the helmets were gold for the entire season, it is not likely that on the morning of Week 1 of the 1953 season, the Lions' equipment manager arrived for the game and magically all of the helmets had turned golden overnight. This process had to have taken place over time meaning the team could have changed them if they wanted to - just like wanting to paint them blue for night games.
The other question then is, if the majority of the players had nice silver helmets, why did some retain the 'golden' ones? Sure the reason could be as simply as personal comfort as stated above. But maybe something more devious was at hand.
We already know that back in the 1940s the Lions experimented with wearing 2 different colored helmets - one color for linemen and one color for 'skill' players. It was thought this was done to help the quarterback identify targets downfield. Could these players be wearing the gold helmets amongst the rest of the team's silver ones for some alternative purpose similar to this?
Our lead photo above clearly shows that the majority of the team pictured had pristine silver helmets while a few are of the 'gold' variety. The dugout photo is NOT from 1953 (ie. the TV numbers).
Whether or not these helmets were INTENDED to be gold or not, it doesn't change the fact that they WERE gold. A modern day comparison, of sorts, would be this year's Minnesota Vikings helmets. The team states that the intention is to match the purples of the helmets with the purple of the rest of the uniform. Clearly the matte purple on the helmets does not match the rest of the uniform and we at GUD depict that.
What the Lions' dugout photo does is confirm that these gold helmets existed and were clearly different from the standard silver versions.
Different theories can exist as to why they ended up the color they were. Did they start silver and turn to gold? Did they start as gold and later develop the characteristic green splotches due to the presence of copper in gold paint? We may never know the 'why.'
The only thing needing clarified remains...If this photo is, indeed, from the 1956 season, it likely indicates that the gold helmets must still have been in use for 1954 and 1955, as well. Just how long after 1953-56 were some Lions still wearing these 'gold' helmets?