Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1857.
Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1857.

Foot-ball activity was increasing and changing by the late 1850s in America. All foot-ball games had been played using mostly the foot to forward a ball toward a goal line. In 1858, Harvard University students began to play a carrying game of foot-ball. The carrying game was called another basic form of early foot-ball. Trinity College of Hartford writes a set of published foot-ball rules found this year and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) was forming the first all-class ‘varsity’ foot-ball clubs.

The Yale administration had managed to end their rowdy ‘mob soccer’, freshmen-sophomore games after 1854. But class games were being 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 some independent foot-ball clubs forming in the large cities of the USA during the late 1850s. Beginning in the 1850s, several newspaper articles have been found describing foot-ball games. As an example, in 1855 an annual kicking game of foot-ball was begun by the alumni of the newly-closed Woodward College in Cincinnati, OH. There were 25 players to a side. This game was continued annually into the 1890s.

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 feat since class games were begun around 1800.

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 Hughes, 1857, may have been a major factor in this decision. The book was very popular in the Boston area, which seemed to be a center of the ‘muscular Christianity’ movement in America at the time. There possibly may 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 of July 1858, the ‘Call for 1861 Up’ article praised the game, and told the class of 1861 to be sure and play this 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 canceled their frosh-soph games in July 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.

At the College of New Jersey (Princeton), the students formed all-class foot-ball clubs in 1857 and 1858 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.

In 1858, Princeton purchased the new 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 some times as popular as kicking the ball to forward it, until this year. During 1857-1859, the Princeton varsity beat the Princeton Seminary students. The scores of these games are lost because they were etched on tree trunks during this period. They also played teams of the Cliosophic Hall and Whig Hall 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, page 2).

  1. Each side shall choose two umpires, whose decision, under the following rules shall be final.
  2. A line shall be drawn at 50 feet from either bound, over which lines the sides shall not pass before the ball has been canted.
  3. There shall be no carrying of the ball.
  4. A clear space of at least ten feet shall be given in front of the ball after it has been caught.
  5. Fifteen minutes shall be allowed between each game.
  6. Players shall, under no circumstances, be allowed to hold on to one of the opposite party.
  7. Each must keep on their own side of the ball
  8. .If the ball goes over the side bounds, it shall be kicked through the middle by the player who gets it.

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 two months earlier. 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 amateur 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 there were some activities in the military camps during the war.

The year 1858 is a pivotal year because the two basic forms of early foot-ball were now being played in America, the same as in Great Britain. By the 1860s, the kicking game becomes known as the association football game (now called soccer) and the carrying game becomes rugby. With the advent of old digitized newspapers, the early history of these two games are being pushed back in time in many countries (see Wikipedia’s football discussions online). However, America’s early foot-ball history still remains the same. Only one foot-ball team, the Oneida Football Club of the Dixwell Latin School, is listed for America before 1869. Ultimately, it was the carrying or rugby game from which our American football game emerged in the early 1880s. It did not evolve from the kicking or soccer game.


*Compare the Hartford Rules with those published in Sheffield, England only a few days earlier on October 21, 1858:

  1. The kick off from the middle must be a place kick.
  2. Kick out must not be more than 25 yards [23 m] out of goal.
  3. A fair catch is a catch from any player provided the ball has not touched the ground or has not been thrown from touch and is entitled to a free-kick.
  4. Charging is fair in case of a place kick (with the exception of a kick off as soon as a player offers to kick) but he may always draw back unless he has actually touched the ball with his foot.
  5. Pushing with the hands is allowed but no hacking or tripping up is fair under any circumstances whatever.
  6. No player may be held or pulled over.
  7. It is not lawful to take the ball off the ground (except in touch) for any purpose whatsoever.
  8. The ball may be pushed or hit with the hand, but holding the ball except in the case of a free kick is altogether disallowed.
  9. A goal must be kicked but not from touch nor by a free kick from a catch.
  10. A ball in touch is dead, consequently the side that touches it done must bring it to the edge of the touch and throw it straight out from touch.
  11. Each player must provide himself with a red and dark blue flannel cap, one colour to be worn by each side.

A version of this article first appeared in the College Football Historical Society (CFHS) Journal, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, February 2010