Tailgating is steeped in tradition, socializing, and fun. Everyone wants to claim a piece of tailgating history, but where does this ritual of food, fun, and fanfare really come from? Where did tailgating originate, and how did it develop to today’s event we eagerly await all week long?
Where did tailgating originate?
The history of tailgating is muddled, with a lot of teams and fans staking their claim as the “first” tailgaters in the nation.
Most historians can agree, though, that the first noted event of tailgating happened back in 1869 on College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In the very first “official” game of intercollegiate football, Rutgers and Princeton fans showed up wearing their school colors. It was the first time fans had specifically worn their campus colors to differentiate themselves for a game. (Do you think they got their gear from Campus Colors?) At the event, they chowed down on chili, pork, corn, beer, and whiskey, and they were fed with Chuckwagons. It was a party that went down in history and set the stage for collegiate football games moving forward.
Battle of Bull Run (1861)
Although the Rutgers-Princeton game was the first true football tailgate, a few years earlier, there were some “tailgaters” that attended a war battlefield. It was the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, where the Confederate and Union soldiers met in Manassas, Virginia. It was a Sunday (not unlike tailgating day today), and the Union supporters traveled from Washington D.C., shouting “Go Big Blue!” They brought wagons loaded with minced meat, apple pies, plum puddings, wines, and whiskey. They wore Union colors and cheered on their side of the war.
We can’t say these were true tailgaters, since they were unfortunately there for a war. Still, there was a lot of socializing and excitement, and it was the first time Americans brought food and entertainment to a “partisan” match.
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Jake & Jen 🐴 and their majestic driver Bob @bobbykoch10 Obsessed with these photos @riata.imagery got on our little trek last weekend 💜 What a time to be alive 🏕🙌🧡 #teamster #chuckwagon #gowest #bobscreekranch #intothemountains #wagontrek #oldschool #cowboy #livingstonerange
Remember those Chuckwagons from the Rutgers-Princeton game? Charles Goodnight was the guy who invented those. We have him to thank for portable food “out of a trunk.” Although Charles didn’t invent tailgating or even partake in it (as far as we know), his invention of the Chuckwagon became a staple for how Americans would be able to tailgate at their favorite games.
In 1866, only three years before the first tailgate, Charles Goodnight (a Texas rancher and entrepreneur) transformed a U.S. Army wagon into a mobile kitchen. He used it to feed cowboys and working men on the road. It was pulled by mules or oxen, and it carried food like black-eyed peas, beef stews, catfish, buttered biscuits, and beer. His simple, compact design and its ease of convenience allowed the Chuckwagon to become the enduring staple of tailgating food tradition today.
The “most famous tailgating party”
Later in the 20th century, tailgating had already started to spread across the country and expand in its festivities. 1933 saw the “most famous tailgating party” when the Florida Gators played the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville, Florida. The party lasted from Wednesday to Saturday, with a lot of activities, food, and drinks, to ultimately come together to watch the teams battle on the football field over the weekend.
This event was coined “the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party” by a Florida Times-Union sports editor in the 1950s. This then became the game’s slogan every year until 1988, when the slogan was changed after too many shenanigans were occurring (some still refer to it as such, though).
Since the media referred to this as an outdoor cocktail party, and not a tailgate, this hints that the tailgating term had yet to be popularized.
Where did the term “tailgating” come from?
Green Bay Packers
It’s hard to figure out exactly where a word originated and how it was spread. One theory is that the Green Bay Packers coined the term in 1919 (they joined the NFL in 1921). The story says that Packers fans would back their trucks into Old City Stadium and watch from the back with snacks like ham, potatoes, and custard. It was likely that they began bringing food and drinks in their trucks, but they probably weren’t parking around the field. There’s no evidence to support this theory that “tailgating” started here, but Packers fans are sticking by it.
Even if the Packers didn’t coin the term “tailgating,” we have to give them credit. They hold the record for bravest fans. In 1967, fans tailgated during a -48 degree wind chill (yes, 48 degrees Fahrenheit below zero) to watch their Packers defeat the Cowboys. This would later be known as the Ice Bowl, but fans stuck it out anyway! Check out some of the coldest games in college football history.
Stay warm with your school’s colors on a high-quality hoodie. We offer fleece sweatshirts to keep you warm when the temperature drops, and the NCAA-licensed logos make it clear who you’re rooting for—no matter the weather.
It’s more likely that the term “tailgating” would have started at the collegiate level, since that’s where tailgating really got its start. Some people say that the term “tailgating” came from Yale University, which some also believe is one of the first examples of tailgating in the early 20th century.
Yale didn’t have a lot of parking, so opposing fans would have to travel to the games by bus or train. They’d get to the grounds early, and with no food or drink available in the stadium, they’d bring their own. This quickly transformed into a social event while waiting for kickoff. (If you’re traveling to an opposing team’s city, check out some of these things to see in the surrounding area before the big game.)
Some sources particularly credit the former Yale Sports Information Director Charley Lotfus with coining, or at least popularizing, the term “tailgating.”
Is tailgating an American tradition?
The history of tailgating is distinctly American. It’s rare to see the same sort of open-trunk festivities in other parts of the world. Other countries celebrate their sports teams in unique ways, but the good ol’ food, alcohol, games, beloved fan costumes, and downright fun is truly an American pastime.
It’s true that people have been using parties to manage conflict and bring people together for centuries. Even the harvest celebrations in Greece and Rome could be likened to today’s tailgate with the feasting and the camaraderie within the community.
Certainly, parties aren’t new. But the uniqueness of the tailgating experience is still distinctively American through and through.
History of tailgating fun facts
Want to whip out some fun fast-facts at your next tailgate? Memorize some of this noteworthy information, and you’ll be good to go!
- Yale claims to have started the tailgating tradition, but it probably first goes back to Princeton and Rutgers. Yale isn’t the only school to want to be the first tailgaters; University of Kentucky and others have made their claims, too.
- People tailgated at the Civil War (this was the Battle of Bull Run we discussed earlier).
- Tailgating is an American tradition, but it doesn’t look the same across the country. Different areas of the U.S. have their own favorites, like Louisiana fans like jambalaya, the Midwest tailgaters need brats, and West Coasters like grilled fish or even pasta (pretty much everyone tops it off with a cold beer or other delicious beverage, though).
- The average tailgater spends more than $500 annually on tailgating (not including booze, tickets, or travel). It might not be a bad idea to start budgeting for your Saturday and Sunday entertainment!
- The American Tailgater Association estimates that between 20 and 50 million people tailgate every year.
- It’s estimated that 30% of tailgaters don’t even go to the game. They’re there for the tailgate and never even enter the stadium!
- 95% of tailgaters prepare their food at the stadium. The majority use portable grills as their top cooking method.
- Sporting events aren’t the only tailgates. Tailgates are also becoming a popular activity for concerts (Jimmy Buffet draws a large tailgating crowd) and even weddings.
- Different outlets each have their own rankings of the best tailgater teams. What we find more interesting are these best football traditions for each top-25 team by ESPN.
- Some experts think tailgating may have even started locally in individual cities when people would go to church on Sunday morning, socialize and share food in the parking lot afterwards, and then walk over to the neighborhood baseball field to watch a game.
- See some more tailgating facts and research here.
Our favorite fun fact about tailgating history is the super fan Joe Cahn. Cahn is considered the “most practiced tailgater in the nation.” He visited every NFL stadium, 125 college stadiums, and 9 NASCAR tracks in 15 years of tailgating. In 1996, he sold his Louisiana School of Cooking business and began promoting tailgating across the country, serving up jambalaya at over 800 tailgating parties. He’d definitely win the Super Bowl of tailgating. You’ve got to read Joe’s Tales of a Tailgater article.
Tailgating has a rich history
Tailgating is steeped in tradition. It’s become such a vital and vibrant part of our culture today that just about every team wants to claim their part in bringing tailgating history to life.
No matter where it originated from, the goals of tailgating have always been and will always be the same: to bring people together, have fun, and enjoy some sports.
Get ready for the game this weekend with some hot gear that shows off your pride for your school. Choose your school here to start shopping and get ready for this week’s tailgate!