The First Football Uniforms

During the first intercollegiate football game Princeton v. Rutgers played in 1869, the sole suggestions of a uniform were the turbans on the heads of the Rutgers players. In all other respects all the players on both sides came to the field in their ordinary student clothing.

A picture of the original game of intercollegiate rugby, taken on April 14, 1874, on Jarvis Field, Cambridge, presented the teams of Harvard and Gill, depicts the Canadians in short white trousers, alternately striped jerseys and turbans, a complete modern uniform even for this modern day.

The Yale team of 1894 in simple period uniforms

The first use of the complete costumes by an American football team was presented by the Princeton team of 1876 in their game with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn’s first ever game) played at Germantown in November of that year. The Princeton players were attired in black tights. Their feet were clad in baseball shoes made of leather and canvas strips in the fashion of modern sports shoes. Their jerseys were trimmed with orange stripes on the sleeves and at the collars. The players also wore orange striped turbans on their heads, a practice of all players which continued down into the early ’90’s. The resemblance of the orange and black stripes to the stripes of the tiger instantly won for Princeton the name of “Tigers” which is the oldest of the college nicknames. The Pennsylvania players also wore distinctive uniforms: white cricket suits.

About two years later, a Princeton man by the name of Ledru P. Smock invented a suit consisting of canvas trousers and a canvas jacket, including sleeves, the jacket being laced up in front. These jackets, after their inventor, were named “smocks,” and this uniform lasted until the year of 1890 or 1891, when the canvas trousers were replaced with moleskin, a soft, tough felt fabric. The canvas jackets continued on for several years.

The 1874 UPenn football team without organized uniforms, we especially like the fellow wearing the top hat

Up to this time the only protective devices were light quilting on the knees and hips of the trousers. In the Harvard-Yale game of 1893 Harvard startled Yale by appearing in one-piece suits made of smooth leather, the idea being to increase the difficulty of tackling the slippery Harvard players, a condition which became accentuated in that game by a heavy rain. Yale neutralized the advantage, however, by quickly securing a barrel of powdered rosin and covering their arms and hands with the sticky material.

In 1890, the Princeton captain, Edgar Allen Poe, suffered a broken nose in a preliminary game. The late Arthur J. Cumnock, captain of Harvard, designed and sent to Captain Poe for use in the game against Yale, the original nose-guard.

The headgear followed soon after. On the Lafayette team in 1896 was a very famous player by the name of George Barclay, who later, while playing in the National Baseball League, was the “Ty” Cobb of his day. George was developing cauliflower ears. To prevent this he designed a headgear which was made by a harness maker in Easton. Playing a very spectacular and winning game against Pennsylvania on old Franklin Field, October 23, 1896, Barclay so popularized the headgear that the next year it was in general use throughout the United States.

Princeton’s Captain in 1930,  R.A. Mestres in a uniform without padding

The year before, shin-guards appeared. This classic old device, derived from the Roman soldier’ greaves, was not popular because it interfered with running. In the Harvard-Princeton game of that year, 1895, Herman Suter, of Princeton, picked up a Harvard fumble and ran ninety years, only to be deprived of his touchdown by his shin-guards becoming loose and tripping him up.

Shields for the thighs, which today are encased in almost every pair of football trousers, were invented by George Woodruff, Coach of the University of Pennsylvania, and came into use in the middle of the late ’90’s.

Percy Haughton, of Harvard, was the first to equip his players with the high felt waist-pads and shoulder pads which have characterized the players from his time until the present day.

The present universal practice of wearing identification numbers on jerseys had its origin on Franklin Field. Because few football spectators of the present day have been following the game for a period of more than twenty years it will be difficult for them to realize that this reform is less than twenty-five years old, or that it required nearly ten years or persistent agitation to bring it about. Yet until a few years before the first World War numbering players was not done. There was no method whereby either the public or the press could identify players on the field. The present editor of this publication (Edward R. Bushnell) made the original suggestion in the course or a series of football articles published in the Philadelphia Press. His contention was that football should follow the practice of track and sports and number the contestants. The suggestion was instantly opposed by many coaches who contended that the reform, desirable as it might be for spectators, would play into the hands of the opponent.

Adopted from an article by Edward R. Bushnell which originally appeared in the Penn-Navy 1940 Franklin Field Illustrated and was reprinted in the Cornell-Penn program of 1962.

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One Response to “The First Football Uniforms”

  1. Max Horlick Says:

    Ha! This brings back memories. When I was at Rutgers in 1939, the uniforms were much different than today. Uniforms aside, can you remember the 1939 Rutgers Princeton game, where Rutgers beat Princeton — the first time since 1866.

    Although it’s fictional, my book recounts that year. You should check it out on my blog.

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