Seven years after battling Rutgers in what is considered the first college football game, Princeton met Yale on November 30, 1876, in the first college game played on Thanksgiving. Fewer than 1,000 fans—mostly alumni and students—watched Yale win, 2-0, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in a game that resembled rugby.  

Less than five years later, as college football's popularity surged, the rivalry had become a major event on the social calendar, with thousands of fans filling stands.

In 1873, as college campuses in the Northeast incubated the sport, students from Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Columbia formed the Intercollegiate Football Association. The league standardized rules and set schedules that included an annual Thanksgiving game in New York between the teams with the best records from the previous season.

Except for Harvard in 1883 and 1887, those teams were Princeton and Yale. In the 1880s and 1890s, their Thanksgiving confrontations became the biggest events on the college football calendar.

Princeton-Yale Becomes a New York Tradition

Millionaire William K. Vanderbilt sipped champagne while watching the 1889 Yale-Princeton game.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Millionaire William K. Vanderbilt sipped champagne while watching the 1889 Yale-Princeton game.

When the Thanksgiving game between Princeton and Yale shifted across the Hudson River to Manhattan’s’ Polo Grounds in 1880, crowds swelled from hundreds to thousands. Ten thousand fans watched the 1881 game, and attendance surged throughout the decade.

By the mid-1880s, the Princeton-Yale showdown had become a major social event in New York City, and an annual game between Wesleyan and Pennsylvania was added as a side dish to the main course.

While football in the 1880s was a brutal game of mass tackles and flying wedges between players wearing nothing thicker than skull caps on their heads, the fan experience wasn’t far different than it is today. Outside venues, vendors hawked pennants and flags. Profiteers resold $1 tickets for five bucks. Oddsmakers exchanged betting slips for cash from fans, who gambled on the outcomes of games.

Like the fall foliage, the stands were ablaze in color with Princeton’s supporters decked in orange and black and Yale’s backers in blue. Fans tied handkerchiefs with their team’s colors to umbrella handles and walking sticks and decorated hats and lapels with colored ribbons. Yale’s female fans wore violets, while their counterparts from Princeton donned yellow chrysanthemums and orange and black rosettes

Ticketholders in stagecoaches and carriages parked next to the football field to enjoy the ultimate tailgating experience. Sitting in his coach drinking champagne from a goblet, millionaire William K. Vanderbilt was among those enjoying a sideline view at the 1889 game at the Berkley Oval in the Bronx. Led by All-America quarterback Edgar Allan Poe, whose father was a cousin of the famed writer, Princeton capped an undefeated season with a 10-0 victory.

Yale Wins 37 Straight Football Games in 1890s

By the close of the 1880s, football teams had sprouted on college campuses from coast to coast, and veterans of the Princeton-Yale game, such as Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg, were instrumental in its spread. By 1890, 45 former Yale players and 35 former Princeton players were football coaches around the country.

At the dawn of the new decade, Yale started a 37-game winning streak (which included 36 shutouts) with a 32-0 blanking of Princeton at Brooklyn’s Eastern Park in 1890. 

The following year, Yale shut out Princeton, 19-0, in a pelting rain to complete a perfect season in which it outscored opponents, 488-0. That game in the newly opened Polo Grounds was played before 40,000 fans, including thousands who watched from a distance atop the rocky crags of Manhattan’s Washington Heights.

With their new venue, Princeton and Yale demonstrated that, although an amateur enterprise, college football had become a big business. While the schools each pocketed $340.42 for their 1880 game, that number soared to over $14,000 by 1891.

Fans from around the country filled Fifth Avenue’s swankiest hotels, and shop owners courting business in the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving game placed photographs and colors of the teams in their storefront windows.

Decades before Macy’s dispatched balloons and marching bands through the city streets on Thanksgiving morning, Princeton and Yale fans staged their own parade as they proceeded uptown to the Polo Grounds. 

People lined the sidewalks three to four deep as carriages and omnibuses trimmed in the colors of the schools carried fans blowing tin horns and bugles “like the advance of an army going forth triumphantly to war,” according to Harper’s Weekly.

Religious leaders across New York moved up the times of their traditional Thanksgiving services to avoid conflicts with kickoff. Chairs also sat empty around family feasts.

“A great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner, the Thanksgiving Day Game,” declared Harper’s Weekly in 1891. "And now everyone goes out to see Princeton and Yale decide the football championship … instead of boring each other around the dinner table."

In 1893, More than 50,000 Attend Princeton-Yale Thanksgiving Game

After another Yale victory in 1892, Princeton snapped its rival's epic winning streak the following year with a 6-0 victory before more than 50,000 fans. That 1893 game in New York would be the last between the rivals on Thanksgiving, although they clashed in the city the next three seasons. In 1897, the annual game shifted to their campuses.

Thanksgiving football, however, was here to stay as family and friends communed around fields in addition to dinner tables. By the mid-1890s, fans could gorge on a football feast as colleges, high schools and club teams played approximately 5,000 games on Thanksgiving.

“In these times Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given,” reported the New York Herald in 1893. “It is a holiday granted by the State and the nation to see a game of football."

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