Texas Living

Popping Open an American Tradition: A Journey Through the History of Tailgating

By Peter Simek 8.10.23

You might say there are only two seasons in Texas: football season and not football season. Each fall, even as the summer heat refuses to abate, the Lone Star State revives its deep traditions around a favorite sporting pastime. The Friday night lights are lit, homecoming parades planned, and pressed uniforms sized from Pop Warner to professional are readied for the mud.

One of Texas’ most distinct football traditions is tailgating, a practice that seamlessly blends camaraderie, cuisine, and celebration. As fans congregate in stadium parking lots, the atmosphere hums with excitement long before the main event begins. So how did this uniquely American pastime start, and how has it developed over the years? Let’s navigate through time to unravel the evolution and history of tailgating.

A Treasured Tradition’s Dark Roots

Tailgating has its roots in the 1800s at the dawn of the Civil War. As the country entered the conflict that would tear it apart, leaving historical, cultural, and economic scars that can still be seen today, few at the time understood what a long, bitter, and bloody history it would be. And so, as the Union and Confederate armies engaged at the Battle of First Bull Run in 1861, many residents of Washington, D.C., headed to the countryside to see what the fuss was about. They brought with them baskets of food, set up chairs and picnic blankets, and cheered on their respective sides.

It quickly became clear that the Civil War would be waged like no war before, and the battle spilled over into the spectators’ camp. Skirmished army units scattered, roads to Washington were blocked, and the civilians unwittingly found themselves thrust into the bloody mess. Tailgating and warfare proved a regrettable mix, but this practice of communal eating and spectating laid the foundation for a tradition that would last for centuries.

Tailgating Meets College Football

By the 1900s, tailgating began to morph into a form we recognize today. This tradition found a home in college football games. Several documented instances of early tailgating include one account at a Princeton-Rutgers game in the 1860s and a later Princeton-Yale game in 1904. Fans arrived in horse-drawn carriages, served picnics from their wagons, and reveled in the spirit of camaraderie, paving the way for our modern auto-centric tailgates. When automobiles were first introduced, the wealthy alumni of the Ivy League schools that dominated American football culture at the time were some of the first owners of the new machines. They drove them to attend games — replacing the wagons and picnic blankets at pre-game celebrations.

After World War II, car culture began to reshape and redefine American culture, and the golden era of the football tailgate party was born. While pre-war college and professional sports venues were mostly located in towns and cities where spectators could walk or ride public transit to events, new stadiums built for schools in growing suburban towns were surrounded by massive parking areas to accommodate the increase in cars. Spectators began to arrive early and mingle ahead of time, grilling hot dogs and burgers and serving cold drinks from the trunks of their automobiles. The rise of larger vehicles in the 1980s and ’90s provided more room for party equipment and supplies, expanding the range of delicacies offered.

Tailgating in Texas

In Texas, tailgating developed its own unique roots and rituals. Tailgates became family parties at high school games, where towns turn out every Friday to continue a tradition of weekly communal celebrations that date back to the early dances organized by first settlers. Schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University developed their own tailgating cultures, with official organizations hosting parties that generations of alumni have attended.

Perhaps the most famous Texas tailgate takes place every Thanksgiving Day, where Dallas Cowboys fans cook elaborate dinners in the AT&T stadium parking lot before cheering on America’s Team. These stadium celebrations demonstrate how far tailgating has evolved. With the advent of the 21st century, tailgating was revolutionized by technology. Portable generators enabled fans to bring televisions and sound systems, while social media allowed them to share their tailgating experiences, adding a new layer of engagement and competition.

Beyond Football

Today, tailgating has become a phenomenon that extends beyond sports events. Events like concerts, festivals, and political rallies have all been touched by this tradition. Companies now design specialized tailgating gear, and stadiums offer dedicated tailgating zones. This practice has woven itself into the fabric of American culture, fostering community spirit, camaraderie, and a shared passion.

So, the next time you’re at a tailgate, take a moment to appreciate the rich heritage you’re partaking in. From the Battle of First Bull Run to the parking lots of Texas stadiums, tailgating has evolved, but its core ethos — community, camaraderie, and celebration — remains unaltered. This distinctive American tradition isn’t just about what happens in the stadium, it’s about shared experiences brought to life in the laughter, food, and excitement of a tailgate.

If learning the history of tailgating has you itching to throw a stadium celebration of your own, find everything you need to know in this first-timer’s guide to tailgating.

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