As we slide further into fall, football season is in full swing. And I love it. If you are going to see the game in a stadium and not perched on a bar stool or recliner it’s an assumption you will more than likely take part in a tailgate party.

I think it’s pretty safe to say tailgating is an American-born tradition. But how did it start? I was curious, so I did some digging. Tailgating is essentially a group of fans coming together, eating and drinking in support of their team prior to the game. If we dig really far back into history, it looks like the first literal tailgate occurred on July 21, 1861. But it wasn’t for sport; it was the first battle of Bull Run, outside Manassas, Virginia, in the early stages of the Civil War.

Up until this point there had been only a few small skirmishes between the two sides. So Northerners assumed this would be the one and only real conflict of the war and they wanted to see it for themselves. Thus reporters, government leaders and (mostly male) civilians traveled out to Manassas from surrounding regions—including Washington, DC—to witness the battle. After the very long carriage rides to the site, they had picnic baskets full of food and wine, cheering on their “team” from distant areas surrounding the battle sites. However this battle turned out to be an unexpected and monumental loss for the Union Army when Confederate reinforcements arrived that afternoon. At that point the Union Army made a frantic retreat back towards Washington, DC and points north—traveling along the same route as the spectators who realized the need to hightail it out of there. (Sources: and

There seems to be some discrepancy as to when the first legitimate sporting tailgate seems to have occurred. The most common:

  • In 1869 prior to the first Rutgers vs. Princeton football game, fans arrived in horse-drawn carriages, bringing food and beverages with them and grilling sausages at the “tail end” of horses.
  • In 1881, supposedly the first collegiate football game below the Mason-Dixon line occurred at the University of Kentucky. Students and alumni ate wild fish before the game, then re-grouped after the game and had leftovers.
  • In 1904, a trainload of fans arrived hours before one of Yale’s first football games—hungry and thirsty. From that point on, fans brought food and drink to subsequent games.
  • In 1919, during the Green Bay Packer’s first year in existence (as a semi-pro team…they joined the NFL in 1921), fans supposedly created the term “tailgating” due to the fact they would back their pickup trucks around the playing field, fold down the tailgates for seating, and enjoy whatever food and drinks they brought with them.

My Personal Tailgate Experience

My college years were spent playing women’s rugby, so we didn’t technically tailgate (I think I went to 1 or 2 football games the entire 4 years of school). The parties AFTER the rugby matches were a tradition, however. But that’s for another conversation….

The first NFL tailgate I went to was technically a work event. As art director of a magazine, the printer we used hosted tailgate parties in the early years of the Redskins at FedEx field and I was often invited. They would bring in an RV with catered pre-game food and any type of beverage you could think of. After the game they had dessert and hot beverages (which really hit the spot after a particularly cold and drizzly afternoon game) while we all waited for the traffic to clear out. Pretty swanky, actually.

To read about some major Dallas Cowboys fans’ tailgate, check out my post A Texas-Sized Tailgate.

Pre-concert tailgating is something my husband, friends and I like to do. Living in the Washington, DC area, we have about 3 different outdoor concert venues. Load up some cornhole, a small propane grill, cooler of food and drinks and we’re good to go for a few hours.

My question to you: what do you like to do for tailgate parties? Simple beer, dogs and chips? Bring a pop-up and go more hard core? I’m curious if anybody has had an incredible pre-game party to where they never made it into the stadium…..?

Some sources:

American Tailgater Association

Chris Warner, author of A Tailgater’s Guite to SEC Football