Over the years, sports apparel has progressed at an incredibly rapid rate. This is due in large part to the athletes themselves, who have gradually become bigger, faster and stronger. Baseball players don’t walk up to the plate without a helmet anymore. Football players can’t wear leather on their heads. Basketball players do not play in their Chuck Taylor’s. Instead, pieces of sports equipment have evolved to match the ever-advancing skill of the players they are designed to help.
Many of these modern innovations are happening before your very eyes without you even noticing them. It is not just basketball shoes and baseball bats that are advancing. It is the little pieces of equipment that are getting better as well. Specifically in the world of protective gear, items like protective cups and supports, braces and wraps have extended histories attached to them, ones that have led to their currently elite performance on the field of play.
This article will focus on the evolution of a certain piece of protective equipment–the mouth guard. The mouth guard has existed for generations, providing millions of athletes with enhanced mouth and jaw protection in all types of sports. There is a reason these guards remain a staple of a myriad of sports today, and it is because of their incredible convenience and utility. Here is a rundown of how they came to be.
The name Woolf Krause isn’t exactly a household name. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t sweat it, and his identity would be one even a Jeopardy! contestant would have a tough time pinpointing. It turns out, Woolf Krause, who was an English dentist in the late 19th century, is credited with inventing the mouth guard.
Woolf Krause developed his revolutionary invention in 1890 in London. Boxers at the time were already trying to create some kind of protection for themselves. They tried to prevent lacerations using bits of tape, sponge, cotton and sometimes wood. Anything to give them an edge. Krause saw that there was a demand for this kind of contraption, but a proper one had not been developed yet.
The first mouth guard was not made out of the rubbery substance that we are familiar with today. Instead, he composed his contraption, which he called a “Gum Shield,” out of gutta-percha, a latex-type material made from the sap of specific kinds of trees. It was designed for boxers, though it did not have quite the same type of usage as it does today. Krause created his Gum Shield in order to prevent against lip cuts, which were common little injuries for boxers at the time. Though the initial mouth guard design was useful, it was refined years later by none other than Woolf Krause’s son.
Woolf Krause’s son, Philip, was connected to the first mouth guard in many ways. For starters, he followed in his father’s footsteps by also becoming a dentist himself. Additionally, he was an amateur boxer during his heyday, meaning his father’s Gum Shield would have perfectly suited his needs in the ring.
Though Woolf Krause set the framework for how mouth guards would function, the younger Krause refined his design. After the Gum Shield was released, it was received somewhat modestly in the boxing world. It was not until Philip’s improved model was introduced to the public that mouth guards really started to become popular.
Philip Krause decided to ditch the gutta percha that the original mouth guard was composed of, and instead went with vella rubber. This flexible material was both more useful and more comfortable for boxers, causing the new and improved mouth guard to become increasingly popular for boxers in the mid to late 1920s. The concept had actually already migrated to the United States a few years before, however, as Chicago-based dentist Thomas Carlos designed a mouth guard for Dinnie O’Keefe, who was an Olympian. It was not until 1927, though, that this essential piece of equipment really started to show their worth.
Mike McTigue vs. Jack Sharkey
In 1927, boxer Mike McTigue took on Jack Sharkey in Madison Square Garden. McTigue was cruising, with a sizable lead in points heading into the final few rounds. Then, in round 12 of 15, a very important event occurred, particularly in the history of the mouth guard.
Sharkey caught McTigue pretty good during this round. McTigue, who was not wearing a mouth guard, suffered a chipped tooth that wound up splitting his lip open. Ultimately, the referee determined that the wound was serious enough that he could not allow the fight to continue. McTigue forfeited, making Sharkey the winner and proving to the public how important mouth guards could be.
Rodney O. Lilyquist
Slowly but surely, the mouth guard became a regular piece of equipment for any and all boxers. It was not until the 1940s, however, that it began to entice other types of athletes as well. It was at this time that Rodney O. Lilyquist, also a dentist, made the next important innovation to the mouth guard design.
Lilyquist was a Los Angeles-based dentist who made his alteration to the mouth guard in 1947. He utilized a transparent, acrylic resin in order to create an acrylic splint, something that had never been done before. Using this material, Lilyquist molded a new type of mouth guard, one that could cover and protect both the upper and lower rows of teeth. Additionally, this design was more comfortable and natural-looking for the wearer.
Suddenly, the mouth guard became much more marketable to non-boxers looking for some extra protection. After Lilyquist unveiled his enhanced design, both basketball and football players began wearing these new pieces of equipment during games. Basketball was far less regulated at the time, while football helmets featured a primitive facemask, or none at all. In other words, these athletes got hit in the mouth a lot. A smaller, more effective design was perfect for basketball and football players, which helped to push the mouth guard into the public eye.
American Dental Association
Though the mouth guard was quickly becoming a popular item among the world’s finest athletes, it had yet to receive any validation from the medical field. Although it was developed–and subsequently improved upon–by several dentists, it was not mentioned in accredited publications until the 1950s.
It was at this point that the American Dental Association (ADA) looked into this little piece of equipment more and more athletes were using to protect their mouths and jaws. The Journal of the American Dental Association featured information about Lilyquist’s design, which helped to solidify the place of the mouth guard in the sports world. It was now backed not only by the athletes using them, but by the medical field from which it had been borne.
By 1960, mouth guards were largely composed of latex, and were recommended by the ADA for use in contact sports. The governing bodies of these sports took notice. In 1962, it was made mandatory for all football players at the high school level to wear mouth guards. A little over a decade later, in 1973, the NCAA made all college basketball players wear them during games. The ADA continued to embrace the mouth guard over time, as they currently recommend that athletes wear them while playing a whopping 29 different sports.
Mouth Guards Today
In today’s sports world, mouth guards can be seen in nearly every sport. You will never see LeBron James drive into the lane without his teeth being protected. You will never see Todd Gurley run through a hole without his mouth guard keeping him safe from certain injuries. The value of the mouth guard has been cemented in modern sports. What’s more, they continue to improve as the years go on.
This is not as much of an issue for boxers or most football players. However, for basketball players, as well as quarterbacks, linebackers, linemen and safeties, it is very important to be able to communicate effectively with your teammates during the game. Mouth guards progressively improved in terms of protection during the early to mid 20th century, but it was not always easy to speak while one was in a person’s mouth. Luckily, leading sporting equipment manufacturers have developed mouth guards that allow the wearer to be understood, without compromising any level of protection.
The two main hindrances to speaking clearly with a mouth guard in are an imperfect fit and the size of the guard. Companies have solved both problems by creating smaller, flexible and durable guards that let the athlete speak normally. Additionally, there is such a thing as a custom mouth guard, which can be molded to a person’s mouth for the absolute perfect fit. Being heard is no longer an issue for anyone looking to invest in one of these guards, further cementing their status in the world of sports. Additionally, the style attached to them has also made quantum leaps forward.
More and more today, you will find the world’s top athletes rocking mouth guards that not only protect them but enhance their look as well. You can now invest in models that feature a huge variety of custom designs on them, upping the overall athletic “swag” of the wearer. This is particularly appealing to football players, who often have a much larger mouth guard than other athletes.
Many football mouth guards also feature a lip guard. These bigger apparatuses protect both the upper and the lower rows of teeth, as it features ridges that the athlete simply bites down upon. This would normally pose a problem, due to the fact that the player needs to have the ability to breathe through his mouth, something that would normally be impossible while biting down on something. Modern football mouth guards feature a breathing channel, however, essentially allowing the player to breathe as he normally would. These guards also feature a lip guard, protecting against the very lacerations that Woolf Krause was trying to prevent in the 1890s. The lip guard is also where the aforementioned style comes into play.
Many football mouth guards today (which are now made out of medical-grade silicone) feature intricate designs and patterns on the lip guard. Tune in to a pro football game on a Sunday and it will not be long before you see a menacing defensive back with sharp teeth on his lip guard. The camera will then pan over to the running back, whose mouth guard features a camo pattern on the outside. These pieces of equipment are now used to show a bit of personality, something that is very indicative of modern sports apparel. The mouth guard has become yet another way for an athlete to look good, feel good and play good, something that will continue to drive the industry forward as they create more stylistic innovations.
The Evolution Continues
Athletes today have a lot to thank Woolf Krause for. This English dentist is responsible for setting the evolution of the mouth guard in motion. Though it was originally designed to protect boxer’s lips, it has expanded to cover vast areas of the sports world.
Forward-thinking dentists were the engineers behind the innovation of the mouth guard, while fashion designers made them aesthetically pleasing to the masses. Mouth guards are no longer about just protecting your teeth, lips and jaw. They are also about looking good, something that Dr. Krause and his son would surely have not expected. If you are an athlete looking for some protection and some swag to take into your next game, you might consider investing in a mouth guard. It may be just the kind of edge you need.