Update: the Schrader five-bolt diving helmet sold for $4,250.
What you see: A Schrader five-bolt diving helmet. It’s based on a late 19th century design by the company, but it was produced by Schrader in the 2000s. Nation’s Attic estimates the helmet at $4,500 to $7,000.
The expert: Don Creekmore, co-owner and founder of Nation’s Attic in Wichita, Kansas.
What was the A. Schrader Diving Equipment Company? The company started in 1844. Around 1849, it started producing diving helmets on a limited basis. [Founder] August Schrader observed divers using crude helmets in New York and thought he could do a better job.
This Schrader five-bolt diving helmet is described as dating to the late 19th century. Can we pin it down more precisely? There’s one thing I want to mention. It’s a 19th century design and style, but it was probably made in the last 20 years, custom made as a a 19th century five-bolt.
The Schrader company made the diving helmet in the last 20 years, as a faithful rendition of one of its 19th century designs? Probably in the early 2000s. There’s not a specific record for this particular helmet. The company was sold in 1999.
But because it was made by the same company that produced this five-bolt design in the late 19th century, it has continuity and value? Yeah. Schrader would produce something like this if you ordered it in the 1950s or the 1850s.
The lot notes describe this Schrader diving helmet as “one of the most impressive and rarely seen diving helmet designs of the 19th century”. What makes it so? The five-bolt style was an option in the 19th and 20th centuries. You could request that it be made. It was more expensive, and not all divers wanted that configuration.
What made the five-bolt style of diving helmet different? It has five large bolts around the neck ring. The top [the part that encloses the head, known as the bonnet] and the bottom [known as the neck ring] separate. The bolts are tightened with thumbscrews to create a seal. Though the five-bolt might sound easy or nice, it was a bit less popular than threading the top and bottom together.
The more popular diving helmet design of the time threaded the two component pieces in place? The vast majority of helmets that survive have the interrupted thread pattern. They’d thread the top onto the bottom and use a rubber gasket or seal [to make it watertight]. The five-bolt was not a problematic design, but it was more expensive, and people shied away from it.
How did Schrader sell its diving helmets? Did it produce a catalog and only start work once it received an order, or did they tend to have a few finished helmets on hand, ready to pack and ship? They didn’t have them in inventory, waiting to be purchased. They had a catalog with two designs–the five-bolt or the threaded, and options could be added.
How would a Schrader diving helmet have been used in the late 19th century? It was used by the military and by commercial divers. The military wasn’t putting specific markings on the helmets in that time period. A lot of the time, they were worn for salvage work–ships would sink, and salvage companies would employ divers to retrieve valuables.
And there wouldn’t have been any recreational divers in the late 19th century, right? Not at all. There was no recreational use of these. Diving was way too dangerous and expensive. And there was no formal training. Whoever had the guts to get into it, that was the requirement, more or less. As long as you were willing to do it and you had someone up top to pump the air [down to you], you were qualified.
You couldn’t be claustrophobic and work as a diver in the 19th century. Once the helmet is closed, you know immediately if you can do it or not.
This Schrader diving helmet is also described as a “four light” model. What does that mean? “Light” is a term for the windows in the diving helmet. Typically, there are three or four windows. The fourth is on the top of the helmet. At the turn of the century, it was a $10 option to have a window on top.
When did it make sense to spring for the fourth light? If your work involved working under a ship hull and looking up, an extra window would help with that. If you were looking down mostly, why bother with the $10?
And $10 in the late 19th century is not the same thing as $10 today… Do we know how much the complete two-piece Schrader diving helmet would have cost back then? Was the five-bolt version $100? Probably a little bit more. Between $120 to $160 at the turn of the previous century. Another thing to keep in mind is there’s a lot more equipment needed to support a diver. The bill could get up there–$1,000 to $1,500.
How did someone get in and out of a diving suit in the 19th century? How many other people did they need to help them put it on and take it off? Usually you’d need a few guys to get in the big canvas suit. The diving helmet has a series of 12 bolts, or brails, along the collar. It lifts off the breastplate and comes off. Threaded studs stick up or go through the collar of the canvas suit…
It sounds like trying to do up buttons without being able to see where the buttons are. And it’s heavy rubber, and brass, and copper, and it’s wet. Usually, it was a struggle. You’d secure the brails, then the bolts, and you were in the suit. When the brails press down on the rubber, it creates a seal.
So, with one assistant, you’ll get dressed, but it’ll be slow. With two, it goes much faster. That’s why there was usually two guys, and one or two guys to manually turn the pump that pumps air to the diver. [The assistants, called “tenders”, helped the divers with their gear and pumped the air during the dive.] If one is tired or his back seizes up, hopefully, the other can relieve them.
Whoa. Because you have to keep the air coming. You’ve got to trust your guy. [Laughs].
And I take it the brass fitting poking out of the back of the head piece, or bonnet, is where the air hose would have attached? Yes. Another feature on the back is the non-return valve. [The valve is part of the fitting that accepts the air hose. It’s at the center of the back of the bonnet in the picture above.] It was a safety feature conceived of in the 19th century. Before, if the diver was 100 feet deep and the air line got cut suddenly, the air would quickly escape. It meant death for the diver immediately. This valve stopped the air from escaping if the hose got cut.
Yikes, the pressure… …is not your friend at those depths.
How much does the Schrader diving helmet weigh? Do we know what each piece weighs, and what it weighs as a whole? The total weight is around 70 pounds. I haven’t weighed the parts separately, but they’re similar, so, about 35 pounds. The Schrader five-bolt is about five pounds heavier than the other style.
Who could wear such a thing, even if they only spent a short time out of the water? With the helmet, you’ve got your suit, and very heavy boots made out of brass and lead, plus a belt weighted with brass ingots. Without the weight, you wouldn’t sink. It was hundreds of pounds to have on. It’s comfortable once you’re in the water. But you’ve got to be a tough guy.
Not everyone could do it. Not even if they were young and strong, it seems. You needed two people under your shoulders lifting you up to walk you to the ladder. You needed assistance to get in the water and get out.
Oh gosh, and if you’re coming back out, you’re hundreds of pounds heavier than normal AND you’re wet. And you’ve been working, and you’re tired. Lots of times, these were tough guys who didn’t want people to assist them. But they required assistance to get in and out of the water.
How much did a full diving suit weigh, with helmet and belt and boots? It was substantial. Between 225 and 300 pounds is a good, broad range, depending on the work being done.
Why is the Schrader diving helmet made from copper and brass? Why were those the best metals to use? They don’t rust. That’s the major concern there.
To our 21st century eyes, the Schrader diving helmet looks beautiful. But was it made with beauty in mind? Or was it as “beautiful” to 19th century divers as a dock full of container ships is to us now? It was strictly functional. There were no aesthetic considerations at all. They were not meant to be collectible, but people kept them because they were visually interesting. That’s why we collect them today–they’re cool-looking.
This diving helmet was never used, and there are several others in the March 14 auction that clearly were. Do collectors show a preference for either type? There are two reasons why people buy them. One, to have an impressive display piece in their collection. Two, historical dive groups around the country wear vintage diving helmets. You could use this right now if it was checked out [by a certified dive expert]. For a commercial dive, it probably wouldn’t be allowed, but for historic recreation purposes, if it holds air, it’s good to go.
So who buys Schrader diving helmets now? Do most collectors view them as functional sculpture? Probably 90 percent of people who collect them never take the helmet and use it. It’s historic and for display. For 50 percent of people, this was their occupation. For the other 50 percent, they saw a helmet in an old movie or a magazine article and thought, “Oh my God, that’s really cool-looking.” Half the customer base is people who simply find them interesting. They look visually interesting, and they know the risks and the dangers undertaken by the divers originally. It gets people interested in having such a thing.
I can only imagine what a 19th century diver would think of all of this. They probably could not fathom it. “You want to dive? No one is paying you to do it?” But groups around the country do it.
The lot notes describe the Schrader diving helmet as “100 percent authentic”. What does that mean here? Some diving helmets have components that might have been replaced for whatever reason. This is as it left the factory in the 2000s. This was made by the Schrader company in a configuration it offered in the 19th century.
Ok, so if you wanted to use this Schrader diving helmet on an actual, honest-to-goodness dive, you could. But how? I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to hook it up to period-correct air hoses, even if there were any that survived in good enough condition to use… In a diving group, when you’re using an antique helmet, usually the helmet is the only thing that’s antique. [Laughs] Everything else is new, for safety purposes. A lot of times, when a group gets together, they bring all their equipment.
It seems that historic diving is social and anti-social at the same time. It is. You’re down there by yourself, doing your thing, but you rely on other people. As a group, it’s a tight-knit community, especially among people who are professional or military divers.
Have you worn this Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, or one similar to it? Yes.
What was that like? Uncomfortable. The first time you’re put into the helmet and the front is closed, it’s real loud, because you’ve got air being pumped into it–a very loud hissing noise. Once you’re committed, in the water, you’re in it. [Laughs]. You have to stay calm and trust the safety of the helmet and the people monitoring what you’re doing. It’s claustrophobic, at least the first time, but it’s something you get used to.
Did you dive while wearing a Schrader five-bolt diving helmet? Multiple people help you suit up and get in the water. Communications with the five-bolt are done by pulling on the rope: one pull for “more rope”, and two for “get me out of here.”
Were any supports for the helmet built into canvas diving suits in the 19th century, or did divers have to take the full weight of the helmet directly on their shoulders? When you’re out of the water, the helmet rests directly on your shoulder blades. It’s uncomfortable. There is a pad you could use [between the helmet and your shoulders] but tough guys don’t want to appear to need special assistance.
Is the pad kind of like the neck pillows they sell at airport gift shops? Yes, but without the polka dots and the colors.
What condition is the Schrader diving helmet in? Essentially, it’s new old stock. It’s never been used or put in the water.
Why will this Schrader diving helmet stick in your memory? It’s a five-bolt pattern. The military used to use five-bolt helmets, but around 1916 it introduced the U.S. Navy Mark V, and it became the standard helmet. Those that were in stock were modified to make them similar to the Mark V, which was a threaded style. There aren’t many surviving examples of the five-bolt style. It’s visually different, it’s mechanically different, and the military took a lot of them and made them into something different. To collectors, it’s the visual component that’s key.
How to bid: The Schrader five-bolt diving helmet, made in the early 21st century by Schrader after its own 19th century design, is lot 0061 in the Spring 2020 Historic Diving Auction, offered on March 14, 2020 by Nation’s Attic.
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