The First Ever Tailgate Dates A Lot Further Back Than You Probably Think

Every Saturday in autumn, thousands in the U.S. gather around their TVs or in college football stadiums to root for their favorite team. As much as the game itself, many who attend college football games in person, or sometimes just host a football watch party in their yard, enjoy the tailgating ritual: A picnic-like gathering with snacks and refreshments from the tailgate or back of a parked car, as Cambridge Dictionary explains.

Some such celebrations are quite sophisticated, and garner nearly as much attention from fans as the on-field competition, based on 247 Sports reporting. The first-ever college football game took place in 1869, between Rutgers and New Jersey, now Princeton (History). One might imagine that the first tailgate celebration came later on with the primacy of the automobile in the 20th century. As it turns out, tailgate-like gatherings have taken place at sporting events for centuries, as History notes.

Spectators used to 'tailgate' at Civil War battlefields

Though tailgating as we know it today came about with the automobile in the mid-20th century, packing a picnic meal for a sporting event or some such special occasion is nothing new. During the American Civil War, in fact, spectators would plan tailgates of sorts and gather to watch Civil War battles, as History goes on to explain. In 1861, eight years prior to the first college football matchup, spectators watched the Civil War battle now known as the First Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

Accounts of those tailgaters of sorts come from Union Captain John Tidball who remembered "throngs of sightseers" and London Times correspondent William Howard Russell who wrote (via American Battlefield Trust), "On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles." Describing the vehicles at that time, Tidball added, "They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback and even on foot ... It was Sunday and everybody seemed to have taken a general holiday."

Greeks and Romans gathered for harvest celebrations

Though not exactly inspired by the fall harvest, modern college football tailgating traditions are also similar to the gatherings that ancient Greeks and Romans were known to host in the autumn: Parties full of food, drink, and merriment to celebrate the changing of the season, as History notes. According to University of California Irvine marketing professor Tonya Williams Bradford who's studied tailgating tradition (via History) "The notion of people gathering around food is not new — when contests emerged for entertainment, it was natural for food to be part of the gathering."

The first college football-related tailgate-like party in the U.S. is thought to have happened in 1880, roughly a decade after the first college football game was played. The game in question that spectators gathered to watch with snacks and refreshments took place between Yale and Princeton for the Thanksgiving holidays. Instead of the Ford F150 trucks which often host tailgaters today, there were luxury horse-drawn carriages lined up on the sidelines, according to newspaper reporting from that period (via History).