The art of tailgating can be described as a delicate balance between fandom and celebration. It is an event that does what nothing else can: It brings together sports and eating. It’s a place where fans can not only paint their faces, but enjoy a beer with a supporter from the other team. It’s a medium where sports can be enjoyed pre- and post-game. a great place to network with clients. A great place to have fun. 

There is something about the combination of friends, family, appetizers and beverages that excites fans like few other things can. Grilling burgers that are branded with your team’s logo, competing to see whose flag can fly the highest, and dressing children in sports paraphernalia – all are as American as the hot dogs and apple pies that are consumed while doing them. And while this time-honored tradition dates back to some of the earliest sporting events, tailgating has arguably grown more popular than the events with which they are associated.

The first tailgate party?

This still leaves the question: How did tailgating begin? Who was the first fan to toss aside his leather tunic and instead don his team’s uniform? Who came up with the idea for a portable brick oven? Who was the first to eat from the back end of a covered wagon? Whose mother was the first to be called a cheeky wench before a heated game? There are so many aspects to the tradition that is tailgating, it is hard to decipher where each one came from. And although some of these questions may forever go unanswered, many historical events can be connected back to early forms of tailgating. Through the mediocre recording skills of pioneer sports fans, we can deduce many celebratory acts and see how they are still connected today.

The original tailgate

One of the first tailgating events was first documented during the Civil War, although participants, in all likelihood, were not sharing recipes or playing a friendly game of horseshoes. The event took place in 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run. At the battle’s start, civilians from the Union side arrived with baskets of food and shouting, “Go Big Blue!” their efforts were a form of support and were to help encourage their side to win the commencing battle.

Although this event was a far cry from tailgates today, this is one of the first historical events of passersby cheering on an event. This day also is important in that it documents food being used to celebrate a specific event. Many historians believe that, despite the civilians’ enthusiasm, even for the time, cheering on a war wasn’t exactly considered kosher … or safe. But, despite the dangers that these “fans” may have endured, the rituals they displayed have a direct correlation to the tailgating that is practiced today.

Eating on the run

Another event that would help shape the history of tailgating happened just five years after the Battle of Bull Run, in 1866 when Texas rancher, Charles Goodnight, transformed a U.S. army wagon into a portable feed wagon. Goodnight saw the need for cowboys to eat regardless of location, and invented his contraption – the chuck wagon – to help mobilize hearty meals. The chuck wagon, named after a lower-priced cut of beef called “chuck,” helped transform the face of the ranching industry. Goodnight’s portable cooking design was efficient, and more importantly, on wheels. Goodnight’s chuckwagon was an early model of many tailgating setups that are still used in present times.

Tailgating meets sports

Up to this point, however, each form of early tailgating had yet to be performed at an actual sporting event. The act of pre-game celebration would not be introduced to competitive sports until 1869, when the earliest signs of tailgating at a sporting event took place at the inaugural intercollegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers. This game was a battle similar to present-day rugby, and each team consisted of 25 players, playing a choice of three different positions. Two men from each team would hide toward the back, hoping to score, undetected as 11 men acted as defenders, and the remaining 12 (called bulldogs) were part of the ever-moving pile.

However, what arguably had the biggest effect on tailgating at this game, was a group of Rutgers fans and players, who wore scarlet-colored scarves (converted into turbans), in order to be separate from the other fans. Their school colors were a show of support, and defined them as belonging to a certain team. Ten “games” or “runs” later, Rutgers won 6-4.

Modern day

Today’s tailgate party.

Ever since that first competitive collegiate game, the traditional form of tailgating has been practiced at sporting events everywhere. Ever since opposing players have faced one another, fans have worn the colors of their teams. And from the first meeting of schools, onlookers have hollered throughout the game, both for and against it. Even before cornhole, there was tailgating.

Nowadays, food and beverages have become a staple before the big game. There are barbecues before baseball events, beers shared hours before kickoff, and cold cuts spread out at the start of a racing event. Tailgating is a large part of American culture, and is enjoyed today more than ever. Whether it’s the companionship, the love of the game, or comradeship that can only be produced hours before an intense sporting event, the act of pre-celebration has often become more important than the games themselves.

To date, tailgating has changed as much as the game of football itself. Where turbans were once worn to distinguish which team you were rooting for, caps, jerseys, themed T-shirts, and body paint now are the norm. And where food was once transported in a horse-drawn wooden wagon, grills and coolers now are transported with ease, allowing tailgaters to consume the best of foods and beverages on the road. Despite the changes in the evolution of tailgating, one thing has endured: the fans’ spirit.