Although this article of clothing looks like a standard 1930s wool vest, it has a secret — it’s actually armor.
Donated by the La Crosse Police Department, this Dunrite Bulletproof Vest was most likely manufactured in the mid-1920s to the 1930s. It was made by the Detective Publishing Co. in Chicago, one of the oldest and largest suppliers of police gear at that time.
The vest is wool, with four pockets on the front and black plastic buttons running down one side. The back does not follow the typical vest shape and is more rectangular. The front and back of the vest are connected by snaps at the shoulders as well as elastic straps on the sides to allow it to be adjusted. Beneath the wool outer layer is 15 pounds of metal to protect the wearer from bullets shot their way.
These vests were popular with 1930s gangsters because they were inconspicuous and light enough to allow for a quick getaway. In fact, a Dunrite Bulletproof vest was found in the back of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s vehicle, with a few bullet holes, after the couple was apprehended in 1934.
A former worker for Detective Publishing, Elliott Wisbrod, took the Dunrite model and created his own version of the vest and patented it. He is rumored to have given vests to famous gangsters, including the notorious John Dillinger.
Though the name states the vest is bulletproof, it offered only minimal protection from the weapons of that era and would never stand up to the high-powered bullets of today. The fine wool used for Dunrite vest shows that it was made to be seen, but also to discretely blend in with the style of the day.
This early body armor helped pave the way for the high tech Kevlar bulletproof vests that protect officers today.