By Kaley E. Brown
Catalog Number: 1991.003.04
Although this article of clothing looks like a standard 1930’s wool suit vest, it has a secret-- it’s actually armor.
Donated by the La Crosse Police Department, the Dunrite Bulletproof Vest was most likely manufactured in the mid 1920’s to the 1930’s. It was made by the Detective Publishing Company Chicago, one of the oldest and largest Police suppliers in America at the time. The vest itself 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 the size of the vest to be adjusted. Beneath the wool outer layer lies 15 pounds of metal to protect the wearer from any bullets shot their way.
These vests were popular for gangsters of the 1930’s because they were inconspicuous and were light enough to allow them to make a quick getaway. In fact, a Dunrite Bulletproof vest was found in the back of Bonnie and Clyde’s Ford V8 with a few bullet holes after the couple was finally apprehended in 1934. These vests that found themselves in the hands of gangsters were usually stolen from police officers. A former worker for the Detective Publishing Company, 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 other famous gangsters like the notorious John Dillinger.
Though the name states the vest is bulletproof, it actually only offered 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 very classy early body armor helped pave the way for the high tech Kevlar bulletproof vests that protect our officers today.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on October 16, 2016.