Long before football, people were pregaming everything from the fall harvest to executions.

September 01, 2017

On Saturdays and Sundays over the next several months, as the leaves turn bright colors and a chill develops in the air, millions of Americans will be sitting in football stadium parking lots, eating burgers and drinking beer. The practice of tailgating is so popular and so anticipated that, at times, it overshadows the game itself—in fact, one study found that 10 percent of people who tailgate never end up going inside the stadium at all. But how did it become such an engrained part of the football experience?

For two years, Notre Dame professors and anthropologists John Sherry and Tonya Bradford traveled around the country studying, observing and documenting how Americans tailgated. In their 2015 report, they compared the modern-day tradition to ancient Greek and Roman practices of fall harvest celebrations known as "vestavals." Named after Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, these parties were held to enjoy the abundance of the fall harvest season. They were intended to bring the community together for an excessive feast of food and drink, perhaps for the last time before season turned bitter cold and food became scarcer. Comparing tailgating to ancient vestavals, Sherry told the New York Times that the "football season starts at the end of summer, goes through fall and ends on winter's doorstep. Tailgating is an autumnal rite that celebrates abundance in the face of austerity."

Related: America's Best Tailgating Cities

While that comparison is relatively family-friendly, another pre-football version of tailgating occurred during France's Reign of Terror in the late 18th century. Families would show up early, before political executions to enjoy a meal al fresco. According to historian Stanley Karnow, those executions often took on a "carnival atmosphere."

The early American story of tailgating also took place far from a sports stadium. More than half a century before the founding of the NFL at the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia—the Civil War's first official conflict—hundreds of Union sympathizers showed up to the battlefield armed with picnic baskets and wine to observe what they thought would be a small and inconvenient rebellion. One Union Captain reported that he observed a "throng of sightseers" having a good time including "women who had driven out in carts loaded with pies and other edibles." This didn't end particularly well. Confederate troops overtook the Union, forcing a retreat. Many of these panicked soldiers ran head on into the tailgating crowd. Luckily, no civilians were killed but the chaos caused sufficient panic.

The safer practice of football tailgating has its origins in the Ivy League, at least it does according to Yale alumnus and professor Thomas Bergin. According to Bergin's research, the first football tailgate was in 1906. Yale was having a winning season when they took on their rivals from Harvard. At this point, the car was still a relatively new phenomenon with only about 100,000 on American the roads (compared to over 250 million today). But considering the wealth of many Ivy Leaguers, it shouldn't be surprising that many fans showed up to Yale-Harvard game in cars—many of which carried picnics. Those who were arriving on the train for the two o'clock game had not eaten their lunch and were hungry. When those eating their picnic spreads in their cars spotted the poor people who had missed their lunch, they invited them over to join in on their festivities. 

In their report, Sherry and Bradford write that tailgating is much more than eating in excess while waiting for the big game. According to the anthropologists, "Tailgating is actually a very complex social, community-building exercise, not simply a wild party." Although, that also sounds like an excellent excuse to give your boss so you can eat burgers, drink beer and watch football nearly every weekend for two years.

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