1858: A Pivotal Year in Early American Foot Ball

By Melvin Smith

Foot-ball activity was increasing in the late 1850s in America. In the years preceding the 1858/59 season, Harvard’s annual freshmen-sophomore game had become the biggest spectator sport of the entire calendar year. There were over a hundred players to each side. There were also several ‘regular’ games of foot-ball played between the classes during each season that used 15-25 men to a side. The 1860 Freshman class had actually won a game (later called a goal) in 1856. It was only the second time a freshmen team had done this since the games were begun around 1800.

The Yale administration had managed to end the rowdy mob soccer freshman-sophomore games after 1854. But at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), the students formed a foot-ball club in 1857 after the inter-class games were completed (see ‘The Princeton Book; Chapter on Foot-Ball’, D. Stewart, 1879). It is the first reference to a college varsity team found in the States.

Class games were also played annually at other colleges such as, Dartmouth, Trinity of Connecticut and Brown. A few high schools in Boston were playing some interscholastic kicking games. And there were a few independent foot-ball clubs forming in some of the large cities in the States at this time.

In 1858, the Harvard 1861 sophomore class apparently had some individuals interested in the carrying form of foot ball played at the Rugby School in England. The highly popular book, ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’, by Thomas Holmes, 1857, may have been a major factor in this decision. The book was very popular in the Boston area. There even might have been some practice carrying games of foot-ball played on the Harvard campus in the spring of 1858. A very negative article appeared in the June 1858 edition of the Harvard Magazine demanding the end of the annual freshman-sophomore foot-ball game. But in the next issue, July 1858, the ‘Call for 1861 Up’ article praised the game, and told the class of 1861 to be sure and play the game in the fall.

On September 6, 1858, an ‘immense’ crowd congregated at the Delta to watch the ‘sophomores carry the ball over the goal line’, (see John Blanchard, 1923, ‘The H Book of Harvard Athletics’, Page 326). After the frosh-soph game it was customary for the seniors to join with the sophomores and the juniors with the freshmen and play another series of three ‘games’ (goals). An account in the Boston Advertiser of September 18, 1858, tells of ‘two freshmen holding the legs of a senior’. These descriptions seem to be the first accounts of the carrying game of football with tackling being played in America.

The Boston high schools that fed their students into Harvard quickly took up this game and after the Harvard administration cancelled the frosh-soph games in 1860, the high school students kept this game alive through the 1860s. One school, the Dixwell Latin School, formed the first American high school football club called the Oneidas in November 1862.

In 1858, the College of New Jersey (Princeton) purchased a leather football. Kicking the ball along the ground, or dribbling, quickly became more popular than hitting the ball with the fist as a way to propel the ball to the boundary line. This college had been playing the ‘ballown’ or ‘ball down’ game from the 1820s. Hitting the ball with the fist was as popular as kicking the ball until this year. During the 1857-1859 time period, the Princeton varsity beat the Princeton Seminary students. The scores of the games are lost because they were etched on trees during this period. They also played teams of the Cliosophic and Whig secret societies and the East and West dormitories. The administration stopped all foot-ball action by the end of 1859 because it was taking up too much of the students’ time and energy.

In Hartford, the Trinity College students agreed to play a game with the local town team in 1858. A set of eight rules were agreed upon before the game was played. As of now, it seems to be the earliest set of football rules found in America (see the Hartford Courant; November 6, 1858). The third rule says, ‘There shall be no carrying of the ball’. So this game is confirmed as being a kicking game. Perhaps these rules were written to counter the new game being played in Boston for two months. The Trinity students lost to the Hartford Town Team, 0-3 goals, on November 9, 1858. There were twenty players to a side and it was played on the South Green in Hartford, CT. The Trinity faculty apparently found out and vetoed another proposed game.

There were also half a dozen football clubs founded in the late 1850s in the big eastern cities and even St Louis. More research is needed to find if any outside games were played by these clubs. The acceptability of foot-ball games was clearly on the rise at this time, but with the onset of the Civil War in the early 1860s, the playing of athletic sports was set aside. The only games played were by a few high schools and some activity in the military camps during the war.

None of the foot-ball games mentioned in this article about the late 1850s have been accepted by any of the institutions involved. It takes another ten more years before a game of foot-ball is finally accepted in 1869.

Printed by the College Football Historical Society, Vol. XXIII, #1, November 2009

Last update: August 17, 2011

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