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The History of Tailgating: How Did the Pre-Game Rally Begin?

As football season approaches, our thoughts drift to backyard barbecues, the fantasy football pool at work, and tailgating. Tailgating seems kind of weird when you think about it: the pre-game before the big game and a party all its own. You can tailgate for any sport (sort of), but it doesn’t really feel like tailgating unless it’s football. How exactly did this happen? Why? And how far back does it go?

Tailgating History: Ancient Times

Imagine you’re in a large crowd of people gathered to watch a competition. The atmosphere is electric, with people dancing, playing games, eating good food, and hyping each other up as the start of the match nears.

While this might sound familiar to anyone who’s been to a football tailgate, this also describes the ancient Romans gathered outside the colosseum, where gladiators battled to the death for the amusement of the crowds. And this is where the story of tailgating begins: with the constant human compulsion to travel great distances to witness entertainment.

Tailgating History: Early Modern England

The Early Modern English version of tailgating during the 16th and 17th centuries was perhaps even more morbid. Entertainment at the time often involved viewing criminal punishments. This was popular, we assume, because life was incredibly different back then and had far fewer entertainment options than we have available today. So different that the opportunity to watch a hanging was interesting enough to justify a day trip (or longer!) to reach the hanging site.

It was even common for large crowds to arrive the night before the execution and spend the evening drinking and dancing and bringing business to local merchants, then go to the hanging the following day.

Tailgating at the French Revolution

During the French Revolution, the atmosphere of the crowd was especially lively. Musicians performing for dancing crowds and merchants selling food, artists doing face painting, and even rogues running carnival-like games all set up shop around the guillotine area to serve the vast group of people traveling to the site.

Tailgating History: 1860-80s

In 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first football game, and it’s likely fans—who had traveled by wagon to watch the game—would have eaten food prepared and served out of their wagons. This was when tailgating met football: the perfect match. 

By the 1880s, the concept that would later become tailgating was being noticed, with newspapers covering the annual Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving game reporting on the ostentatiously wealthy fans who sipped champagne and nibbled extravagant hors d’oeuvres while sitting in luxury horse-drawn coaches parked on the sidelines of the game. 


Tailgating History: 1900s

If you’re anything like us, you may have noticed a recurring theme of fancy-sounding details in the descriptions of early tailgating—and that’s no coincidence! Throughout most of human history, traveling away from where you usually lived wasn’t often available to people who had to work for a living.

This continued into the 1900s, with cars that were prohibitively expensive for the average family and mainly were seen as a toy for the wealthy. Since the people buying the cars were often also alums of prestigious colleges, they obviously used those cars to travel to college football games. In 1906, for example, there were 100,000 registered cars in the United States—and nearly a third of them traveled to Connecticut to watch the Harvard-Yale game, with many participating in a pre-game tailgate-style celebration.

These pre-game celebrations, often involving a lavish picnic-style spread shared among participants, were noticed by fans who had arrived by train and also noticed by the media covering the football game, which often mentioned it in their game coverage.

Henry Ford Brought Tailgating to the Masses

In 1908, Henry Ford began selling the Model T Ford and priced it to be affordable for the average worker. Car ownership increased exponentially. At the same time, college football was rising in popularity all around the country.

By the 1920s, there wasn’t enough parking near the football games anymore, so some colleges built large stadiums with large parking lots. An unintended effect of drawing such large crowds was the inability of restaurants in college towns to serve everyone, so more fans started bringing picnic fare to eat in the parking lot. Are we saying Henry Ford is nearly single-handedly responsible for modern tailgating? Well, we’re not not saying that.

But what we will say is that the term ‘tailgating’ was first used around this time, and some credit goes to Yale sports information director of the time, Charley Loftus, for coining the term.

Portable Grills and Coolers Sealed the Deal

Before the 1950s, certain limitations had to be considered when planning the pre-game party. Those limitations included no way to keep food cold while traveling and no way to reheat or cook food at the location. As you can imagine, those conditions led to a lot of warm sandwiches and warm beer.

Things turned around with the mass production of portable grills and plastic coolers. Grilling became a staple of 1950s Americana iconography, along with football and cars—and with all these things rising in popularity, the rise of modern tailgating was inevitable.

Tailgating, Hold the Football

As recently as the 1950s, tailgating has shown signs of reaching its final form. In some college towns, the tailgating experience surrounding the annual game between rival college football teams has expanded into multi-day festivals, with many participants only going to the tailgating portion of the party!

When You Can’t Go Tailgating Proper

If you want to have the fun of a tailgating party but you’re not able to make it to a stadium parking lot or a local college game, plan and host your own! 

Coordinate with some friends to meet up at a local park, parking lot, or similar location and have your own pre-game football fantasy. Bring food and drinks, a picnic table, a grill, your pre-game get-pumped playlist, and some games to keep you occupied until it’s time to drive home and watch the game. 

Speaking of tailgating games, you can take your party to the next level by proving your superfan status with a custom Cornhole board displaying your team colors, team logo, or custom artwork immortalizing your favorite player! Simply fill out our custom design request form, and our digital artists will get to work on your masterpiece.

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