While growing up in Tarpon Springs, on the west coast of Florida, Nicholas Toth often visited the machine shop of his grandfather, Antonios Lerios, a skilled maker of diving helmets used by the men of Greek descent who dived for sponges. While in college at the University of Florida, Toth often returned home to learn the craft. After graduating with a political science degree, he apprenticed himself to his grandfather. They worked together for more than a decade, until Lerios’ death in 1992, at 100 years of age. Toth then took over the family business, making the one-piece helmet of spun copper that his grandfather had perfected over the years.
“I use the same everything as my grandfather,” Toth told NEA interviewer Mary K. Lee. “I use the same wood patterns. I use the same cast iron mandrel to pound out the breastplate. I use all the same equipment in our shop. My grandfather’s helmets are considered fantastically beautiful. I’ll spend a good amount of time to add an aesthetic element to the helmets.
“I also spend a lot of time polishing. I use different grades of emery cloth and sandpaper to bring out a high gloss to the brass components. I try to create a mirror-like finish on most of the surfaces. It’s more of an artistic statement and has little to do with functionality. I do this to transform the helmet from being just a piece of functional equipment into a piece of artwork that will evoke an emotion and a reaction from the viewer. I want someone to look at it and see it as an object of beauty, and then perhaps at a deeper level consider what it represents. Who wore this helmet? What’s the story behind the people who wore this and did this work? And, of course, on another level it has become a symbol of the community and a symbol of our heritage.”
Today, many divers have switched from the metal helmet and the accompanying heavy, waterproof suit to a scuba-type mask that is less expensive and easier to use, especially if the diver is working alone or with a small crew. But some continue to use the traditional equipment, and it has also been adopted by commercial divers working in the colder, rougher waters of San Francisco Bay.
Toth is one of the few in the world still making the heavy helmet, known as a hard hat. “I’m very proud of what I do, you know, proud of what it represents," he said. "But I’m also sad at one level that there’s not more appreciation in our society for this level of craft. It’s a world where we’ve perhaps forgotten the importance of the craftsman, of craftsmanship, of artisans who have the skills to create things that evoke thought and emotion in us. Our focus has gone elsewhere as a society where we don’t perhaps appreciate it overall. Of course there are people that do appreciate it, but overall, I think we’ve lost a link in the chain that in a sense helps make our world a little better place.”
Allen, Frederick. “They’re Still There: The Diving Helmet.” Invention & Technology (fall 1997).
Geier, Ellie. “Tarpon Springs: A Quaint Waterfront Community with a Rich History, a Dynamic Present and an Exciting Future.” Life & Home (July/August 1986).
Klinkenberg, Jeff. “Crafting Diving Helmets is Their Family Tradition.” St. Petersburg Times Floridian (May 1987). McKinney, Charles. “Tarpon Craftsman Gets Award.” Clearwater Sun (February 1986).
Pilugin, Nicholas. “Grandfather’s Legacy a Labor of Love.” Tampa Tribune (July 1990).
Stuempfle, Stephen, ed. Florida Folklife: Traditional Arts in Contemporary Communities. Florida: Historical Association of Southern Florida, 1998.
Nicholas Toth, 2003 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Arlington, Virginia, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Nicholas Toth interviewed in The Sponge Divers, courtesy National Geographic Explorers
Nicholas Toth answers the question 'How do you make a diving helmet?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Nicholas Toth answers the question 'What kind of suit do the divers wear?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar
Nicholas Toth answers the question 'How long does it take to make one helmet?' Arlington, Virginia, 2003, interview by Alan Govenar